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GNL baseball preview – East Valley biggest obstacle to West Valley repeat

The West Valley Eagles used seven walk-off wins last year to soar to the top of the Great Northern League standings and a top-eight finish in the state playoffs.

But coach Don O’Neal’s bid for a repeat faces an uphill battle after he lost star pitcher Austin Lee to a rotator cuff injury he suffered in football and graduation thinned his ranks.

“Last year was a pleasant surprise. We didn’t know how good we could be,” he said. “Hopefully we can follow up on that.”

But O’Neal said the Eagles have already lost once to a hot-hitting Colville club and they will face three quality pitchers at crosstown rival East Valley.

Gage Burland’s fastball has been clocked at 94 mph and East Valley also has hard throwers J.T. Phelan and Alex Bowdish, O’Neal said.

“That’s a pretty good big three for them,” O’Neal said of the rival Knights. “I told (coach) John (Phelan) that he could put a monkey at shortstop and he would still be OK.”

For West Valley to repeat, O’Neal said he needs to somehow turn youngsters into veterans.

“After Lee got hurt, that really put a damper on what we were trying to do,” he said. “We had to move guys around and put in guys who weren’t quite ready. Hopefully, we’ll keep improving and getting better.”

O’Neal said he also expects a big year out of Clarkston, which finished second in the GNL last year at 20-6 overall and 14-4 in league and finished fourth at state.

Bantams coach Bruce Bensching has three returning starters and six returning lettermen. The Bantams have already posted wins over Pullman and Cheney.

“We will be trying to find a few guys to step up for us on the mound and pitch some quality innings for us,” Bensching said. We “have great leadership on the field.”

Cheney finished fourth last year behind the Eagles, Clarkston and East Valley. Blackhawks coach Mike Cagle returns only three starters and five lettermen. But Cagle said he hopes for good things if he can shore up the defense.

“The league should be pretty balanced and it appears as though there are some teams that can swing it pretty well,” Cagle said.

Pullman has already stumbled out to an 0-5 start to the year, but Deer Park is already one win away from matching last year’s win total, when the Stags went 4-16 overall and 3-15 in league play.

Coach Tanner Knutson, in his first year at the helm, said he’s got a pretty good defensive squad that plays well together. He returns six starters and eight letterwinners from last year’s Deer Park team.

It “should be a good year for the Stags,” Knutson said. I “hope to be the Cinderella story out of the Great Northern League.”

Tom Clouse

Predicted finish5. Cheney
1. East Valley3. Clarkston6. Pullman
2. West Valley4. Colville7. Deer Park