Knappa junior Eli Takalo was the winning pitcher in the last two state finals. (Photo by Krissy Goodman)
Knappa junior Eli Takalo was the winning pitcher in the last two state finals. (Photo by Krissy Goodman)

By now, it’s almost an instinctive reaction for 2A/1A baseball coaches.

When the OSAAtoday preseason coaches polls were released Monday, it was no surprise that Knappa – champion three times in the last four seasons, including the last two – stood at the top in 2A/1A.

But putting together another championship-caliber team this season is going to be a big test for Jeff Miller, who enters his 18th season as the Loggers’ coach.

“Lot of new faces,” said Miller, whose team carries a 38-game winning streak into the season opener Wednesday at Warrenton. “We lost a big core.”

That qualifies as the early leader for understatement of the baseball season. Knappa graduated nine players from last year’s team, among them three four-year starters and five three-year starters. Basically, Miller has a new team.

“I was telling the kids the other day that this is as much uncertainty as I’ve had with a hitting order going into a season as I can ever remember in my years of coaching,” Miller said. “We have some kids that have just been waiting their turn. We have confidence in them, but we’ll see how they go come game time.”

Last year, Knappa went 24-0, committed 16 errors, had seven starters hit better than .350, stole 96 bases in 101 attempts and had a team ERA a shade below 1.50.

The senior class went 98-6, had two of the state’s four all-time undefeated seasons and appeared in four finals. Four of them made first-team all-state, including the state player of the year in infielder Dale Takalo, and three have moved on to college baseball.

So where do the Loggers go from here?

Knappa’s biggest advantage is it returns junior Eli Takalo, the winning pitcher in the last two state finals. The 6-foot-3 Takalo, the quarterback for the football team, throws in the mid-80s and has a big breaking ball.

“He’s just wild enough to put a little fear in people, but not so wild that he walks people,” Miller said. “He’s a lot thicker than he was a year ago. He’s getting closer to 200 pounds.”

Other returning starters are senior third baseman Logan Bartlett and senior second baseman Ryker Coffey. Senior Shaun Lackey, who started as a utility player last season, will start in right field.

The Loggers got a bonus with the return of senior Tristan Wallace, a transfer from 4A Astoria who grew up in Knappa. The left-handed Wallace has the speed and savvy to be a leadoff hitter, will plug into center field and is a strong candidate to be the team’s No. 2 pitcher.

Miller likes the idea of having a righty-lefty combo at the top of the rotation.

“We’re not going to overpower people this year from the mound, but I think we can throw a lot of different looks at teams,” Miller said.

Knappa faces a big challenge during spring break when it plays at a tournament in Arizona. All three of the Loggers’ opponents are from schools with enrollments of at least 2,000.

“We’re probably in over our head a little bit, especially early in the season, when we’re figuring things out,” Miller said. “But we’ll learn from it.”

In 2A/1A Special District 1, St. Paul and Nestucca should provide plenty of competition for Knappa. St. Paul moves over from Special District 2, where it finished second last year, and Nestucca has one of the state’s top pitchers in junior Mitchell Richwine.

“I think St. Paul is a top-five team in 2A,” Miller said. “I would even call them the favorite in our league this year. I know everybody can tell me I’m full of baloney, but I honestly do. They’re definitely the team to go through.”