Luke Wells, McNary High School

McNary’s Luke Levis hurls a ball back to home plate during practice. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric Howald)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Rain kept the Celts off the diamond for the first week of practice, but blue skies for most of the afternoon Monday, March 7, allowed McNary’s varsity baseball team to get in its first full practice outdoors.

It was head coach Larry Keeker’s first full practice since taking over as head coach of the McNary program last fall. Keeker succeeds Craig Nicholas who opted to retire last year. He is only the fourth person to ever lead the McNary program.

“I feel really good about what’s going on so far,” Keeker said. We had 60 kids tryout last week and now we’re in the process of seeing where everyone fits into the junior varsity and varsity squads.”

McNary returns four players – Spencer Rice, Jared VanCleave, Travis Marks and Garren Robinett – from last’s years team, which lost in the first round of the state playoff tournament.

“That’s not typical. We’d like to have about 7-8 seniors, but we do have some experience coming back,” Keeker said.

Rice is a second-team all-league pitcher looking to double his wins in the upcoming season.

“Last year I learned a lot about keeping my composure on the mound and keeping my arm strength up through the game,” he said. “This year I want to throw strikes and trust my fielders to make the plays when the need to.”

Behind the plate, catcher Jared VanCleave is looking to lead the team during the game and as a captain when they’re on offense.

“We’ve got good depth on the mound and our offense has been really picking up,” VanCleave said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what the team chemistry is going to be like and battling for the Central Valley Conference title.”

Marks, Robinett, Garrett Bartlett, John Stang, Justin Burgess and Ryan Herberger are all expected to see time on the mound, Keeker said.

The Celts will travel to meet Grant High School Monday, March 14, in their season opener. Their home opener is slated for Saturday, March 14, vs. Dallas High School. Game time is noon.

“Before the Grant game, I want to pick up the intensity a little bit. Get the small things done and start hitting the ball hard,” VanCleave said.

Keeker is pleased with his initial looks at the hitting roster, but there’s lots of unanswered questions.

“I think we have quite a bit of power, but it’s hard to tell right now with it being our first day on the field for any length of time. We are young and it will depend on the underclassmen stepping up and playing to their potential,” he said.

Defensively, the team is polishing its bunt work and fundamentals, he said.

The returning players will need to make certain they’re leading by example, Rice said.

“We only have four seniors, but even when we’re not in the play we’re working hard to make sure everyone who is lives up to what’s expected by cheering them on and staying positive,” he said.