Forest Grove turned over much of its roster after last year, but returns a pair of all-league players

The biggest question this season for the Forest Grove baseball team may wind up being whether or not Jake Bennett ever sees a pitch worth swinging at.

Bennett, the Vikings' senior centerfielder who was an all-league and all-state selection last year, is one of only a handful of returning players on the Forest Grove roster in 2012, and head coach Kevin Tucker wonders how opposing pitchers will react to the prospect of throwing to a player who batted .518 last season with four home runs and a team-high 24 RBIs.

'Jake was the Player of the Year in our league last year, he's on a full ride to Western Nevada, he hit over .600 in summer ball - he's unbelievable,' Tucker said. 'Last year he had some protection in the lineup, but this year we're really young. It will be interesting to see how teams in our league pitch him this year.'

Bennett is joined by fellow senior and 2011 all-league selection Kyle Vanderkin, a speedy lefty who gets things going at the top of the Forest Grove lineup. Last year he batted .320 with a team-high 10 doubles, and he also drove in 15 runs, good for third on the team.

'Kyle is one of the better infielders in the league,' Tucker said. 'Last year he had a good season in my mind, but in his mind he didn't quite have the year he wanted. I'm expecting big things from him this year.'

The Vikings graduated nine players from last year's team, and the biggest hit was to the pitching staff, which lost ace starters Brandon Carow and Eric Huson, plus reliever Tyler Elich.

Not surprisingly, Tucker will lean on his two talented seniors to fill the void, with Vanderkin inheriting the No. 1 starter role after going 2-1 last year with a 4.50 ERA, and Bennett stepping into the role of No. 2 starter despite never throwing a pitch for the Viks.

'Those two guys are the core of the team,' Tucker said. 'They've got two years of experience under their belt and we're going to depend on them this year.'

Vanderkin, who bats lefthanded but throws righthanded, is a perfect model for Forest Grove's system, which advocates throwing strikes and pitching to contact rather than overpowering hitters and pitching for strikeouts.

'Kyle pitched pretty well last year,' Tucker said. 'He's not overwhelming but he's got a good changeup. He's not a guy who's going to strike a lot of hitters out.'

Bennett, who bats and throws lefthanded, will attempt to keep hitters off balance this season with a variety of offspeed pitches, including a big, bending curveball.

'He's a fairly soft lefty. He probably wouldn't appreciate me saying that, but he's not the hardest thrower on the team,' Tucker said with a laugh. 'But he throws strikes, and he will get by this season with teams struggling to adjust to him.'

Like the majority of his staff, Tucker's two other options at starting pitcher are both lefthanded - Junior Gonzalez, another soft-throwing senior with varsity experience, and Levi Egg, a 6-foot-4 junior who throws with a bit more velocity.

'He's probably our hardest thrower,' Tucker said. 'He's a big kid. When he stands on the mound he's intimidating.'

Stevan Izquierdo, another lefthander, and Austyn Zamora, a righty, will see some innings as relief pitchers.

When they aren't pitching, Vanderkin will play shortstop and Bennett will roam center field. The Vikings also return honorable mention all-league catcher Kyle Townzen, who batted .288 with 12 RBIs last year as a sophomore.

'Kyle came up (to varsity) the first week of league last year and got off to a huge start,' Tucker said. 'He's a good hitter and a guy we're counting on at the top of the order.'

With the top third of the order firmly established with Vanderkin, Townzen and Bennett, the biggest question will be who emerges to provide some protection for the Vikings' stars.

Tucker said that both Izquierdo, at 5-foot-11 and 235 pounds, and Egg, at 6-4 and 185, could provide some pop in the middle of the lineup, while Zamora and junior Jake Kemper also show signs of being contributors.

'Stevan is probably the strongest kid in our school,' Tucker said of Izquierdo. 'He can hit the ball a long way when he gets a hold of it. He's one of those free swingers, so you never really know.'

The bottom portion of the lineup could see mutliple changes over the next few weeks, but Tucker is set on batting Gonzalez in the No. 9 hole as a secondary leadoff man.

'If he can get on base and create some havoc, that could be really good for the top of our lineup,' Tucker said. 'We need to get guys on base for Kyle and Jake, and give them a chance to drive in some runs.'

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