By David Bashore

Herald sports editor

Graduating a dozen seniors from a varsity football team, and changing coaches on top of that, would cause more than a little upheaval to those within the program.

Take that exact subtraction to a baseball team, however, and you have a potential recipe for disaster and lean years looming large in the immediate future.

To Stanfield's baseball team, there's only one response to facing down that kind of loss after last year's exit in the first round at the hands of Vale: Big deal.

Despite the outside world speculating that the Tigers' first season under rookie head coach Bryan Johnson — a former Arizona Diamondbacks farmhand whose father Dave is the winningest baseball coach in Washington prep history — would amount to little, the players were quietly confident that they could compete.

"We knew what we had, and we honestly thought that we were good enough to compete in the district," junior shortstop Matt Ellis said after practice on Wednesday

He was flanked by senior first baseman Marc Mills and junior pitcher and outfielder Casey Irving, both of whom emphatically concurred.

A new coach was never going to be a truly easy transition, but it was one that was far easier than most regime changes are known to be.

The relationship between Johnson and former Stanfield skipper Greg Kaatz, now plying his trade with continued success at Hermiston, goes back many years via a baseball training program that both men's fathers were associated with.

Both coaches' approaches are so similar that the only real adjustment players needed to make was to a new personality calling the shots.

Even then, that adjustment didn't come without its quirks.

"We tried for a while to break (Johnson) into what we wanted to do," Irving said with a chuckle. "But it was pretty much the same as before."

While losing core players like Kyle Sobotta, Tyler Gabriel and Nick McFarlane all at once was an obvious setback to the program, it actually served as a far greater blessing in two ways.

Not only did losing seven of nine starters in the lineup help force the youngsters to grow up in a hurry and provide some sorely-needed depth, it also removed the weighty expectation that had been associated with Stanfield baseball over the past few years.

That, said Mills, Ellis and Irving, helped the game to become more fun, and less pressure-packed.

"It's been a lot better this year, because there was so much pressure last year," Mills said. "We all had goal sheets (last season), and every one of us wrote down ?win state'. It was that or nothing. Now there's no expectation and we can just have fun and play."

Johnson has kept a lot of the things intact that Kaatz had, and attributes a lot of this season's success to the groundwork laid by his predecessor.

"I knew about the program being established," Johnson said. "There was already a winning tradition here, and an expectation to win. A lot of the things this year are down to what Greg did, down to the field kept in such good shape, and other things."

That is not to say that the success is solely because of residual effects of Kaatz's tenure; Johnson's first season has been largely injury free, though not without incident, and that fact has allowed a lot of growth.

The squad has played most of this season without a weight room to lift in, and has had to build strength in other means, but the addition of a new stretching regimen has helped limber players and kept injuries down.

Depth can prove pivotal in a playoff charge, and a few players running into team rules violations — though Johnson takes pride in the way the kids carry themselves on and off the field — helped that depth to be established.

Tuesday's game against Lakeview, in fact, was the first time Stanfield had its full roster due to personal reasons, suspension, or minor injuries.

For a young team — Stanfield starts just three seniors this time around — the Tigers are on the right track for the future, but they're by no means done thinking about this year, and a quarterfinal matchup against Elgin this afternoon.

"It would be great to go to Elgin, win, and get into the (semifinals)," Johnson said. "But we're already in the ?elite eight', and that's a lot further than people said we would get. If the season ends (Friday), and I hope it doesn't, we'll be very happy with what we accomplished."

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