It's only mid-March but this baseball season is already looking better than last year's for Lake Oswego. That's because the team's new turf field has allowed it to practice every day in familiar surroundings.

Last year the team bounced around the city trying to find practice time wherever it could as its current field was still under construction.

As a result, the 2008 squad appears to be in fine form as it gears up to challenge for a league title.

Coach Jake Anders always makes it a priority to emphasize strong pitching and defense and those areas are probably the team's two biggest strengths this year.

Returning for the Lakers is the reigning Three Rivers League pitcher of the year in Jared Van Hoon. Van Hoon will anchor a strong staff and has plenty of experience pitching in big games.

He will be followed by Moto Asai and Craig Mooney, two seniors who have plenty of varsity experience on the mound. The Lakers also have a strong core of junior pitchers that will likely see some innings this season.

Never has having pitching depth been more essential than it will be this year. Over the off-season, the league implanted a new schedule in which teams will play series' against each other, taking on each squad for three consecutive games.

That means that teams won't be able to simply save their ace pitchers for the more competitive teams.

'We're really excited about the rounds of three. It's a lot more like real baseball,' Anders said.

Those three starting pitchers will also anchor a strong defensive infield for Lake Oswego as Van Hoon and Asai will split time at shortstop during non-pitching days and Asai and Mooney will also helm second base.

At first base is arguably the team's most dangerous hitter in Michael Wesner. The senior has already signed on to play at Oregon State University next year.

Nik Torkelson will man third base while Jeff Kremer takes over behind the plate for the Lakers.

Leading a very quick and defensively sound outfield will be centerfielder Nick Rulli with Brian Zinsmeister, Tom Slade and Ryan Attridge seeing time at right and left field.

'We're going to put a very good defensive group out there and we'll pride ourselves on that,' Anders said.

Top to bottom there doesn't appear to be a hole in the team's line-up.

So even though the team lost a strong core of seniors last year, it is likely that the Lakers won't miss a beat.

'We have a lot of solid kids returning. We just need to get our guys as many preseason at bats as we can early on,' Anders said.

Last summer this team came within one game of qualifying for the American Legion finals.

Anders is confident in his team's pitching abilities and knows that the key to contending for a league title and making a deep playoff run lies in the line-up's ability to grind out close games.

'We need to be able to score runs. Last year we lost (in the playoffs) to North Medford 4-2 and gave up four unearned runs. So that has to be a focus,' Anders said.

West Linn appears to be the favorite in the league again this season as it returns the bulk of its team that came within an out of making the state finals last year.

However, Lake Oswego expects to be neck and neck with the Lions once again. Clackamas and Oregon City will also be strong and Lakeridge had already shown improvement in early-season games.

'I say it every year but the league is really strong and it prepares you for the playoffs. Last year we lost the outright league title because we lost a one-run game to Milwaukie. We have a ton of respect for everyone in the league,' Anders said.

The team will start league play just before Spring Break and, over the break, it will travel again to Arizona to seem some solid out-of-state competition.

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