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Baseball team has unfinished business

For three years in a row, the West Linn baseball team has come within one bounce, one inning or one play away from capturing a state championship. The team has advanced to the state semifinals for three years in a row and the state title game once and has ultimately fallen short by the slimmest of margins each year.

And 2008's squad may even be better than the previous three teams.

Inarguably, the team's biggest strength is its depth and, this year, that should prove to be extremely beneficial.

This year, the Three Rivers League will implement a different schedule in which teams will play series', facing the same squad three times in a row as opposed to playing the league in a round-robin format.

This makes it impossible for teams to save their ace pitchers for the most competitive teams and puts an emphasis on having a solid staff instead of just one standout performer on the mound.

'The whole league voted for this system and I think it helps us,' coach Mike Lord said.

As it turns out, West Linn fits both of those profiles. The Lions have a sure-fire ace in senior Kyle Kraus who is among the top pitchers in the state.

'Kyle's got a chance to be as good as anyone we've had here. His competitiveness is something you can't teach,' Lord said.

But what makes the Lions so dangerous in the Three Rivers League is the talent that the rest of the staff has.

Reed Nicholson and Spencer Flores will likely be the team's other two starters for the majority of the season and each of them saw success on the mound last year for the Lions.

The team also has pitching options in Ryan Barnes, Elliot Smith and Kyle Connolly.

West Linn only lost a few significant contributors from last year's team which came within a dropped pop-up from advancing to the state championship game.

Most glaringly, shortstop Colby Martzall is gone along with catcher Mitch Bailey and first baseman Alex Edwards although Edwards missed much of last year with an injury.

However, Joe Offer will take over behind the plate and has the potential to be one of the better catchers in the state. Barnes will handle the bulk of the duties at shortstop and he is among the most versatile and exciting players in Oregon.

Barnes hit lead-off for the Lions last year and was one of the team's best contact and power hitters and also turned in some very effective performances on the mound later in the year.

When not pitching, Kraus will likely play at second and third base with Connolly also sharing time at third base.

Jack Simon will see time at second and Smith will handle the bulk of the duties at first base.

The outfield is loaded with athletes with Justin Monahan patrolling centerfield and Jake Hysell, Nicholson, Justin Williams and Corey Reiniger playing right and left field.

It's a team that expects to match up well with everyone else in the state. After last year, Lord has made it a priority to recommit to defense. While pitching and defense has also been the key to West Linn's success, that should be more evident this season than ever before.

'Everyone in the league has at least one good pitcher and good pitching can always cut down good hitting so our pitching and defense needs to be a constant. We're going to need to win 1-0 and 2-1 games,' Lord said.

This year, the Lions will enter the season as the prohibitive favorites to capture another league title although Lake Oswego and Clackamas each possess strong squads as well.

But West Linn has bigger goals in mind than just another first-place finish in the Three Rivers League.

'We're just as good if not better (than the past three years). Our mission statement this year is that we have some unfinished business,' Lord said.

The team will open league play against Putnam on March 18 and will travel to Orange County over Spring Break to face some of the top high school teams in the nation.