Early in my career as a Union-Bulletin sports writer, I had the opportunity to cover a lot of Whitman College baseball games.
For whatever reason back then, the Missionaries played their home games at Ankeny Field smack dab in the middle of campus. It was a funky experience, with students passing by on their way to and from classes, sometimes pausing long enough to watch a batter or two, sometimes longer, and then moving on.
Palmer Muench was Whitman’s baseball coach at the time, in the midst of a six-year tenure that ended after the 1975 season. As I remember, Palmer was a good baseball man who could never quite figure out a way to raise the Missionaries’ level of play above mediocrity.
He wasn’t alone.
Whitman College’s baseball program dates back 120 years, to a time when the Missionaries were coached by students — presumably student-athletes — from 1899 to 1904. Everett J. Smith became Whitman’s first official baseball coach in 1905, and he ran the program for two seasons.
Since then 20 other head coaches have taken a stab at making baseball relevant on the Whitman College campus. Few were successful.
It’s a list that includes legendary Raymond Vincent ’Nig’ Borleske, who guided the program for 31 years over four decades beginning in 1916 and for whom the Missionaries’ home stadium is named. Max Seachris, likewise a Whitman College grad who made a name for himself as a successful prep coach at nearby Touchet and Prescott, is the Whitman’s second-longest-tenured coach, running the program from 1978 through 1995.
Borleske certainly enjoyed his share of success, coaching Whitman to 10 Northwest Conference championships and a 530-368 record during his 31 seasons, according to his Whitman College Athletic Hall of Fame bio.
Seachris not so much, nor did Ken Woody, who filled in for a couple of seasons after Muench moved on and before Seachris was hired. Nor did John Edwards, Travis Feezell, Casey Powell, Jared Holowaty and Sean Kinney, who all took turns coaching Whitman baseball after Seachris stepped down in 1995.
And then along came Brian Kitamura, who this spring, in his fourth season as head coach, has guided Whitman College into the NCAA Division III postseason tournament for the first time in school history. Whitman has participated as a Division III school since the mid-1990s, according to athletic director Michelle Ferenz.
Kitamura is a Mercer Island, Wash., native who led the Islanders to their first playoff berth in seven years as a high-school senior. He was named ‘Mr. Islander’ following both his junior and senior baseball seasons.
Kitamura was recruited to play baseball at Whitman by Powell in the spring of 2006 and has been a fixture in the school’s baseball program ever since. He was a four-year starter in center field for the Missionaries, although his senior season was cut short by a knee injury, and he was hired as an assistant coach in 2011 by Holowaty, who had replaced Powell for Kitamura’s senior year.
Kitamura served as Holowaty’s assistant coach for two years and Kinney for three after Holowaty’s departure after the 2012 season. Then, after Kinney moved on following the 2015 campaign, Whitman turned to Kitamura to run the program.
It proved to be a wise decision.
In Kitamura’s four seasons at the helm, the Blues — the school disbanded its Missionary nickname during his tenure — have been incrementally on the rise.
After finishing eighth in the nine-school Northwest Conference in 2016 with an 8-16 record, 13-25 overall, Whitman climbed to sixth in 2017, posting an 11-13 league record and a 17-20 mark overall.
A year ago, the Blues notched a .500 record (12-12) in NWC play for the first time in more than 50 years and finished fifth in the final league standings. And their 18-20 record overall represented the second most wins in recent memory.
Kinney led Whitman to a 20-18-1 overall record in 2014, but at 9-15 the Whits finished seventh in NWC play.
This year’s Blues took it several steps further.
Their 26-18 overall record is quite possibly a school record for wins in a single season. And at 15-9 they tied for second place in the conference and qualified for the NWC tournament, which was played a couple of weeks ago in Spokane.
Playing in the postseason for the first time in school history, the Blues made the most of it by defeating the regular-season champion Whitworth Pirates 8-7 in the decisive tournament championship game and qualifying for the NCAA regionals for the first time ever.
Regional play will commence this coming weekend and Whitman will learn Monday where it will play and against who. The school has submitted a bid to host a regional, and if it is granted it would be one more feather in the baseball program’s cap.
And in Kitamura’s.