Just because the turnout was a little lower than normal, and just because they'll be a little young on the field, doesn't mean the Warrenton baseball program won't be competitive this year.

The Warriors are coming off another final four appearance and their seventh straight 20-win season.

And although they've lost one of the most successful classes in school history to graduation, don't use the 'R' word around head coach Lennie Wolfe.

"I hate to think of any year as a 'rebuilding' year, because that just establishes an excuse," said Wolfe, who has taken the Warriors to six straight league championships and 11 straight state playoff appearances. "We're just classifying this season as the 2003 season.

"We're going to win or we're going to lose with who we have out there, and that's true in any given year," he said. "I will admit that it's not often that we have to replace eight seniors. That's the most we've ever had to replace."

But like any traditionally strong program, the Warriors have players ready to step in.

"We've lost eight seniors and a couple of potential starters, but someone will step up," said Wolfe, whose team is scheduled to open the season Thursday at home against Nestucca (1 p.m.). "We might have some young people, but I've had three freshman start over the 11 years I've been here, so we've had young people start before."

And they will have plenty of youth on the field this season, to be sure.

Early-season rainouts are nothing new to Warrenton, but this year's cancellations hurt a little more, since "the preseason was going to be a little more important in terms of determining some starting positions," Wolfe said.

Still up for grabs are a few spots in the infield, and two outfield positions.

Other than that, the Warriors have most of their starters in place.

Warrenton's two lone seniors will see plenty of action, as four-year starter Tyler McGrorty returns for his final season, and David Stevens figures to be one of the top two players on the Warrior pitching staff.

McGrorty, still recovering from a broken leg suffered during the football season, recently was given the go-ahead to start running.

"His speed is not back to where it was, but that's to be expected," Wolfe said. "But he's throwing very well and hitting quite well. Each week he'll be a little stronger and quicker. He's worked very hard to get back."

McGrorty, who had 49 runs batted in last spring, will see split time at shortstop and third base. He was first-team all-state last season as a designated hitter.

"Tyler's just been solid for a long time, and I expect him to be a leader for us in that respect," Wolfe said.

As a part-time starter on the mound last year, Stevens was 1-0 in the spring, then went 4-2 during the summer season. He also hit .364 in the summer, and will see time behind the plate when he's not pitching.

"David's going to be a very solid player for us," Wolfe said. "He's one of our most versatile players. His sidearm delivery gives us a different look, and he's had a very productive winter preparing for this season."

The junior class has plenty of varsity experience, with the return of Zach Gantenbein and Nate McBride - both starters since their freshmen seasons.

Gantenbein, a third-team all-state second baseman, hit .437 last year, scored 45 runs in 27 games and led the team in stolen bases with 17.

He hit .493 in the summer, and will be the lead-off batter for the third straight season. In the field, Gantenbein committed just three errors all of last year.

"Zach just does a super job," Wolfe said. "He's been consistent for a long time in a lot of sports."

McBride, a first-team all-league player the last two years (last year as a pitcher), heads into the season as one of Warrenton's top two throwers.

"We went in last year thinking Nate was going to be our No. 3 pitcher, then (Dan) Gates went down, and Nate and Jeff Pike had to step up, and they did (both went 7-2)," Wolfe said.

"I think he's a better pitcher than he was last year, and I feel good about his improvements at the plate," he added. "He's more disciplined and very focused on improving the things that he needed to work on."

When he's not on the mound, McBride will be the Warrenton shortstop.

Other juniors on the roster include Jake Mullins, a candidate to play third base, who also may see action at first when Stevens pitches; and Eric Holt, a first-year player competing for an outfield spot.

A talented sophomore class includes first baseman Zach LaRue, who may see action behind the plate when Stevens pitches; Nick Miller, Warrenton's center fielder and No. 3 pitcher who went 3-0 on the mound in the summer with a 2.90 ERA; Bret Birman and Jason Warne, both first-year varsity players competing for spots in the outfield; and Nick Tucker, the team's No. 4 pitcher who could earn playing time as the designated hitter or pinch-hitter.

"Like always, I'm looking for our No. 3 and 4 pitchers to win three games in league, if we're going to be competing for a league championship," Wolfe said.

One freshman player, Shane Rudduck, may earn a roster spot as a utility player.

Unfortunately, two players who may have had a chance to start this spring will not play at all. Sophomore Brandon Engebretson - who was on the track squad last year - will have shoulder surgery, and junior Sean Beecham had arm surgery from an injury suffered in last summer's state baseball tournament.

"In '99 - and this is one of the reasons I'm fairly optimistic - we had to replace five all-league starters from '98, and we went 25-1," said Wolfe, whose team finished 24-5 last year. "We've been there before, and we've had to deal with it. It's the nature of the high school game - someone graduates, someone else steps up."

Stepping back in as assistant coaches are Jayson Holmstedt and Ryker Thornton.

"They're a nice plus," Wolfe said, "because they both bring nice things to the program and allow me to work on some areas that I need to address. I can't emphasize how much they mean to the program; they don't get the credit they deserve."

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