Walker Orenstein
West Seattle ballplayers warm up with throwing drills.

SLIDESHOW: Bouncing back; West Seattle baseball tries to recreate last year’s magic without familiar faces

By Walker Orenstein

West Seattle is facing a reloading test more difficult than usual this year.

After losing Sam Helliger to graduation -- the Washington State Baseball Coaches Association and Class 3A state player of the year -- West Seattle is going to have some trouble staying on top.

Hellinger was a lockdown pitcher while also hitting .416 in May 2013 when he was named to The Seattle Times all-area team. The unanimous Metro League MVP pitched a complete game with no earned runs against Mount Si last season to send the Wildcats to the state championship game for the first time in school history.

The Wildcats lost the championship, finishing second in state, but Hellinger was drafted in round 39 by the Mariners last year.

“Sam earned everything he got because he worked so hard,” said West Seattle coach Velko Vitalich. Vitalich has coached the Wildcats for 27 years and was named coach of the year by the Northwest Baseball Umpires Association in 2012.

“If these guys wanna learn anything it’s if you work really hard good things can happen for you, and Sam was a great example of that,” Vitalich said.

This season had a tumultuous beginning without Hellinger. The Wildcats (5-4, 5-1 Metro) faced a tough non-conference schedule, and lost their first three to Garfield, Ballard and Issaquah in close games. All three early losses were against Class 4A teams.

This put West Seattle through the gauntlet early and made it clear that this year’s Wildcats didn’t have a Hellinger to pull them through. To win games, they’d have to focus on the strengths they do have. Despite the bumps, the Wildcats weren’t worried, and Vitalich viewed the games as a learning experience for later in the season.

“It’s just a matter of feeling that they belong and it’s just a matter of getting that playing time,” said West Seattle assistant and JV head coach Romell Mitchell. “Especially here, since last year we did so well, a lot of teams are gunning for us.”

One of those developing strengths is the Wildcats’ pitching corps. Led by senior Ben Wexler, they kept their non-conference games close while shutting down most opponents in conference play. They’ve only allowed 2.88 runs per game through nine contests, including a complete-game one-hitter by Wexler against Nathan Hale on April 9.

“We have a great pitching staff this year,” Wexler said. The Wildcats are 5-1 since losing their first three. “Now that we’re getting our offense together and our pitching is coming, I think we have a really good shot.”

Vitalich echoed the sentiment, and both cited strong infield defense as another team asset.
“I think it’s the depth of the pitching,” Vitalich said. “We can put one two three four five guys out there with similar results.”

Wexler, seniors Jake Magera and Larry Jensen, juniors Kevin Cuddy and Buick MacNamara and sophomore Morgan McCullough are some of the standouts in rotation as starters and relievers.

The Wildcats are trending upward near the halfway point in the regular season, and hope to end the year with another trip to the state finals. No teams left on their schedule are currently ranked, so Vitalich and his players believe winning a majority of their games should be well within reach.

Even without Hellinger at the helm, West Seattle is headed in the right direction once again.

“Even though it’s a really short season, and it goes by really quickly, it’s still a marathon,” Mitchell said. “We wanna build them up so we’re peaking at the right time.”

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