Forest Grove came out of nowhere to finish second in the league last season, and this year's goal is a championship

It's safe to say that Forest Grove won't be sneaking up on anyone this year, not after taking the Pacific Conference by storm with a second-place finish in 2010.

Forest Grove graduated just one player from that team, and the Vikings return a sinister pitching staff that includes their top three starters from a year ago, two proven relievers and a talented lefty who missed much of last season.

Add it all up, and head coach Kevin Tucker is hoping this could be the year that the Vikings break through with a league title.

'I'm really looking forward to the season. This is the most exciting roster we've had at Forest Grove in a while,' Tucker said. 'We're going to have more of a target on our backs this year and we're going to get everyone's best shot. It will be interesting to see how the kids respond to that.'

Tucker's squad will have the benefit of experience from last year's surprise season that saw the Viks win 14 games and advance to the Class 6A state playoffs for the third time in four years. Returners from that team include the top three starters - senior righthanders Eric Huson, Brandon Carow and Tyler Elich - plus southpaw Junior Gonzales, who brings some much-needed variety to the rotation with the Pacific Conference's schedule of three games a week against the same opponent.

'Our starting pitching is going to be our strength, no doubt about it,' Tucker said. 'With Huson and Carow, we've got a chance to win every time those guys pitch. At the high school level, it's rare to have two guys like that [at the same time.]'

Carow went 6-4 last year with a 2.86 ERA, and Huson compiled a 4-4 record with a miniscule 1.66 ERA. Combined, the two pitchers faced 458 batters last season and walked just 19 of them.

'Both guys throw strikes, and that's what we teach - we tell our pitchers to throw to contact,' said Tucker, whose defense led the conference with a .964 fielding percentage last year. 'With this team we can do that. There's not a lot of pressure on our pitchers to strike everyone out because our defense is a big strength.'

The key for the Vikings - as it was last year - will be the team's ability to score. Forest Grove hit .259 as a team and averaged about four runs a game in 2010.

'That's not great, but we got away with it because our pitching and our defense were so good,' Tucker said. 'If we can get the bats going this year, I like our chances.'

The top end of the Vikings' lineup is loaded, starting with speedy junior Kyle Vanderkin, who led the team with a .448 batting average and seven doubles. He will be followed by fellow junior Jake Bennett, who batted .293 last year with a team-high 23 RBIs, and then Carow, who hit .305 with seven extra-base hits and 11 RBIs. Huson, Elich and junior David Makus will provide some additional pop in the middle of the lineup.

'The back end of the lineup is surprising too,' Tucker said. 'Those guys can hit.'

Whether or not the hits come, Tucker can count on his team to give everything they have between the white lines.

'This group is a bunch of gamers,' he said. 'They like to call themselves the 'Dirtbags,' and I like that kind of mentality on the field. I think that characterizes our team pretty well.'

The Vikings have already established winning a Pacific Conference championship as a team goal for this season, and Tucker is confident that they can get there.

'The league title is a goal this year,' he said. 'Last year we finished second, this year we want to finish first. That's where we're at right now.'

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