PORT ANGELES — The Port Angeles baseball team had the look of a state contender as the calendar rolled over into May last spring.
Reeling off five straight wins by a margin of 40-10, including a 5-0 victory against the second-ranked team in Class 3A (North Kitsap), the Roughriders were as hot as any team in the Olympic League.
Then, just as they were hitting their stride, their season was finished; the victim of a 4-8 start that kept the Riders out of the playoffs.
“They were disappointed last year,” said Port Angeles coach Bob Withrow, entering his eighth year with the Riders. “They really thought they were going to win the league.
“I figured we’d be competing for it, but we were young last year. My best players were all juniors.
“This year they are all seniors.”
And predictably, expectations couldn’t be much higher as baseball season begins this week.
With four senior starters returning — led by first-team all-league selections Cody Sullivan and A.J. Konopaski — and 6-foot-8 junior shortstop Easton Napiontek ready to blossom, the Riders are loaded.
After seeing their football and boys basketball counterparts go to state earlier in the year, they’re ready to do the same on the diamond.
“We know that we have the confidence to beat the best,” said Konopaski, who shut out North Kitsap in his final start on the mound last spring.
“We beat North Kitsap when they were No. 2 in the [state], so we know we’ve got the potential.
“I honestly feel like this team is better than last year’s team. We have that chemistry, and we have that talent.
“If we play to our potential, we should be feared.”
Perhaps the most fearsome of those Riders is Sullivan, a potential Olympic League MVP candidate who plays center field and pitches.
Sullivan hit .479 with 17 RBIs, six stolen bases and two home runs as an All-State selection his junior year.
Once he finished out his season with Wilder Baseball, he spent the rest of the summer bulking up in the weight room with his eyes on playing college ball.
He gained velocity on his fastball as a result, reaching the high 80s during a visit to Lower Columbia Community College.
He also got some additional power at the plate.
When Sullivan and fellow senior weight room warrior Brian Senf got in their first cuts at Volunteer Field this spring, the two took turns stroking balls out of the yard.
“He’s the kind of guy that if the team needs to be carried, he’s going to try and do that,” Withrow said of Sullivan.
“Right now, what he needs to do is just sit back and try and play baseball and let the other guys around come up and play to his level.”
Sullivan expects to follow in the footsteps of former Rider standout Eric Lane and play for Lower Columbia next spring.
He would likely play outfield and work as a closer, in order to keep his arm fresh.
In his last season with the Riders, however, he could challenge Konopaski for the role of No. 1 starter, Withrow said.
If not, Withrow will still have a viable front-line start in Konopaski.
The right-hander has good velocity himself and went 4-1 last year with a 3.53 earned run average, 44 strikeouts and 16 walks.
Napiontek, a college prospect in his own right with Washington and Oregon showing interest, could also see some time on the mound.
He hit .300 with 15 RBIs as a sophomore shortstop last year, but wasn’t part of the Riders’ rotation.
“He’s pretty athletic, and you can just tell by the frame he’s not done growing, either,” Withrow said. “He’s filling out and he’s found the weight room this year.
“When you watch him play shortstop you think ‘Oh, he’s awkward, he’s slow.’ But he gets to balls other guys can’t get to, and he made some great plays last year.”
Napiontek will be situated alongside three-year starter Kyler Morgan at second base.
That should give the Riders a strong presence in the middle of the field, made only stronger by Sullivan’s glove in center field.
Just another reason why the Riders feel like they should compete for a league title and more this year.
“We expect to go deep in state,” Sullivan said. “We have a good pitching staff, and I think people will be surprised at the amount of power we have on this squad as well.
“We have some hidden power. I think that’s going to be a good thing.
“We’re going to be able to score runs, and if our pitching can stay low and stay ahead in counts, then we’re going to be able to stay on top of the games.”
Several Riders got together three or four times a week to get in some swings and do bullpen work. That included their two senior leaders, Konopaski and Sullivan.
With just one season left, they aren’t about to finish their high school careers out of the playoffs.
“We know the season isn’t about talent when you start, it’s all about preparation in the offseason,” Konopaski said.
“We want to go out on a good ride. I think anything short of state would be a disappointment this year.”