Brian Kitamura is pleased and proud, but he’s not satisfied.
In his fourth season as Whitman College’s head baseball coach, Kitamura led the Blues into previously uncharted waters this spring.
The Blues won 28 games, arguably a school record. They claimed their first Northwest Conference tournament championship. And last weekend in Orange, Calif., Whitman participated in the NCAA Division III regionals for the first time in school history.
But Sunday’s disappointing loss to Chapman University in the fifth and final game of a best-of-five regional series left the coach hungry for more.
“Obviously, it was a tough ending,” Kitamura said of the unearned run in the bottom of the ninth inning that lifted Chapman to a 3-2 victory in Sunday’s deciding game. “But we will be back. We are excited about the future.”
One reason for Whitman’s steady climb up the Northwest Conference standings during Kitamura’s four seasons, he said, is the coaching staff’s dogged work ethic when it comes to targeting and recruiting athletes who can not only meet Whitman’s rigorous academic standards but can likewise play the game at a championship level.
Tommy Richards and Nolan Parks are the team’s fulltime assistant coaches. Peter Fowler and Blake Treinen are volunteer assistants.
Richards, who has coached the Walla Walla Bears summer baseball team the past two seasons, primarily works with the Blues’ hitters and is also the team’s recruiting coordinator. Parks helps with the offense and is in charge of the outfield defense.
“And they do a lot of the recruiting,” Kitamura said of Richards and Parks. “They are on the road a lot, and they are a vital part of what we do in finding the right guys for our program.”
Fowler, who recently retired in Walla Walla, was one of Kitamura’s summer baseball coaches in Seattle. His primary task is working with the Whitman infielders.
“Pete helped me a lot growing up,” Kitamura said. “When I learned that he was planning to move to Walla Walla, it was just logical to add him to the staff.”
Treinen plays professionally and is the all-star closer for the Oakland Athletics. His wife Kati is an assistant coach for the Walla Walla Community College women’s basketball team, and Blake winters in Walla Walla and works with the Blues’ pitchers before he heads off to spring training.
“We get Blake for about three weeks of practice before he has to leave,” Kitamura said. “But he usually comes in most days and spends a lot of time with our players.
“And it’s special for our players being able to sit down and talk with someone of his caliber. They can talk to him about anything, from baseball to how are classes going to what are you are going to do later in life. And he texts us throughout the year, and that’s something that doesn’t happen with every program.”
Eight Whitman seniors picked up their diplomas Monday night after arriving back in Walla Walla one day after the school’s official graduation ceremonies. It will be a difficult group to replace, led by designated hitter Kyle Reisman, first baseman Lucas Thrun and center fielder Jake Wishart.
Reisman led the Blues with a .345 batting average, knocked in 25 runs and scored 18 times. Thrun hit .322 with 33 RBIs and 27 runs scored. And Wishart finished with a .296 batting average, 25 RBIs, 27 runs and 11 stolen bases.
Another key senior was Milo Mincin, the Blues’ closer who accrued eight saves and a 2.08 earned run in 26 innings out of the bullpen. Mincin, however, missed the Blues’ postseason run with an injury.
The other four seniors are first baseman Alex Behrman, who started 28 of the Blues’ 32 games and hit .279, outfielder Tyler Lewis, infielder Cole Edwards and relief pitcher Charlie Carmichael.
“We will miss those eight seniors,” Kitamura said. “At the same time we told our younger guys that we will be back, that the growth of the program will continue.”
Junior shortstop Brett Williams, junior third baseman David Johnson and sophomore second baseman Matthew Sox are key returners from an offensive standpoint.
Williams batted .312 and led the Blues with 37 runs and 20 stolen bases. Johnson batted .289, clubbed a team-leading five home runs and also led the team with 36 runs batted in. And Sox hit .328 with a pair of homers.
But veteran pitching might be the Blues’ strong point in 2020.
Sox and juniors Travis Craven and Eric Ma provided Kitamura with what he called his team’s “three-headed pitching monster.” That trio started on the mound in all but six of the team’s 49 games and compiled a 21-10 record.
Cravens finished with an 8-5 record and a 3.20 earned run average. Sox was 6-2 with a 3.58 ERA. And Ma posted a 7-3 mark and a 4.39 ERA.
Whitman’s 2020 recruiting class is nine deep and already signed and admitted, Kitamura said, and he and his assistant coaches are already working on the 2021 class.
Kitamura believes the nine players who will be added to the Blues roster this fall might represent his best recruiting class so far.
“We have a great group of kids coming in,” the coach said. “Very talented, but also very hard working. They exceeded expectations at the high-school level and we expect nothing short of that as baseball players and student-athletes at Whitman.”
But regardless of what happens in the future, the 2019 Blues will always be remembered for what they achieved.
“It’s been an incredible season,” Kitamura said. “For the support from the administration and the alumni and parents and fans, I couldn’t be more thankful.
“And I love these guys,” he added. “They have done an amazing job and I couldn’t be more proud of how they competed and how far we have come and how well our guys have represented Whitman College.
“And making history for our program.”