Lynden baseball coach Cory White is not afraid to use freshmen in his starting nine.
It was only four years ago that he started using a freshman catcher behind the plate. That was months before Josh Kraght ended up earning starting quarterback duties for the varsity football team as a sophomore.
Matt Meyer, Zach Vis and Tanner Olson also started to appear in games early in their high school careers.
"I think baseball is a different sport," White said in a phone interview. "Maybe in a sport like football, you need to look more at physical size and strength. But in baseball, if you have good hand-eye coordination, then maybe you can move up earlier. They say hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things you can do in sports, but if you can do it and you can field your position, you're going to find a place to play - it doesn't matter how old you are."
White and the Lions appear to have found the next youngster capable of making a difference, as Jordan Wittenberg has stepped in and done a fine job at third base for the Lions this year.
Sehome coach Gary Hatch noted that Wittenberg already has the perfect frame "to be a good ballplayer for years to come." Add that to his ability to nail down the hot corner and good offensive production, and it's no wonder he's earned a regular spot on Lynden's lineup card.
Wittenberg even hit a key solo home run on Saturday, May 11, to help the Lions get by Lake Washington in the Class 2A Northwest District Tournament - his first homer in varsity play.
That win, plus a third-place victory over Sehome landed Lynden in the Bellingham Regional of the 2A State Tournament. The Lions will face Lindbergh at 10 a.m. in the first round at Joe Martin Field. A win would send them on to face the winner of the Archbishop Murphy-White River game at 4 p.m. in the regional final for a trip back to Yakima and the state semifinals.
"I think we need to put the ball in play and make plays like we're capable of," Wittenberg said in a phone interview. "Playing well on defense and not making errors was key for us in the district tournament. Defense will definitely be key in our upcoming games."
Fortunately, that's something Wittenberg has shown an ability to do, despite the fact he said he spent most of his time playing youth baseball behind the plate as a catcher.
In fact, before he got the call to start at third base, Wittenberg said he had never played the position.
"What helps a younger player like Jordan is third is a more instinctual position," White said. "Other than predetermined bunt formations, the ball is hit to you and you just react. Jordan at third, all he has to do is see the ball, react to it and make the throw, and he's shown great ability at doing that."
Not bad for a freshman that didn't even start the season on Lynden's varsity roster, but rather as a swing player between the junior varsity and C teams.
It wasn't until the Friday before Spring Break, as Lynden was preparing to play some games when it knew it would have some usual varsity players out of town, that Wittenberg got the call up to varsity.
He ended up going 2 for 2 in his first varsity game against Squalicum on April 1, 1 for 2 against River Ridge on April 3 and 1 for 2 at Anacortes on April 11.
But it wasn't until an April 20 game at Lynden Christian that Wittenberg assumed the every-day starting third base slot for Lynden, when regular senior starter Hudson Gratton went down with a separated shoulder after colliding with Vis while attempting to field a bunt.
"We were kind of using Lucas Petersen and Witt in the infield depending on who started," White said. "We had one spot we needed to fill when either Tanner (Olson) or Zach were pitching. When Huddy went down, we all of a sudden had two, so we kept Lucas at second, which is a more natural position for him, and moved Witt to third, where he seems to be a natural. It was a matter of finding the right guy at the right time, and Witt happened to be that guy."
Being that guy meant Wittenberg had to step in to a rather veteran Lynden lineup that had high hopes of returning to the 2A state championship game after nearly winning the program's first state title last spring.
It meant playing beside accomplished three-sport stars Vis, Meyer and Kraght and guys that plan to go on to play collegiate baseball next year like Olson and Luke Christianson.
"I can remember watching those guys play while I was growing up," Wittenberg said. "When I was younger, I remember going to games with my friends."
Now all of sudden, he was playing right beside those guys in those same green and yellow uniforms.
But it actually wasn't the first time he had played alongside many of those seniors.
White said Wittenberg played a number of games for the Lynden Lightning American Legion team last summer, helping earn the respect of the older players and make him feel like a part of the team.
"The great thing about the older guys on this team is they're so welcoming," White said. "Any coach will tell you that leadership will set the tone about how a younger player will be accepted into a new situation, and we're very fortunate to have some terrific leaders. These guys have taken our younger players like Witt and Lucas under their wing.
"Huddy's been a great example. We've told Huddy to key on Witt and make sure he's lined up right and give him any advice he can, and Huddy's done a great job of that. All these guys have worked to make our younger guys feel comfortable."
And a comfortable ballplayer is an effective one.
Wittenberg enters the regional hitting .300 (12 for 40) with 11 RBI and 10 walks, showing he's already a pretty disciplined hitter. White said the freshman also has already shown an affinity for going with pitches the other way, though his home run came when he jumped on a hanging curve and ripped it over the left-center field wall.
"These guys have been great about helping me fit in," Wittenberg said. "They tell me not to be nervous and to just play my game and let it come to me. ... These guys have been great, teaching me what it means to play with pride for Lynden. They've taught me that the name on the front is more important than the one on the back. You've got to play with respect for the game and respect for your school."
Lessons that Wittenberg and Petersen likely will be passing on to the next generation of Lynden baseball players once this talented group of Lynden seniors moves on next year.
"He and Lucas have gotten a lot of good varsity experience this year," White said. "We're going to be graduating a lot of great kids this year, but it's encouraging when you see guys like Witt and Lucas learning from those guys and playing beside them. They are soaking it all in and contributing to this team."
Reach David Rasbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2286.
SATURDAY'S FIRST ROUND STATE BASEBALL GAMES
Mount Vernon Regional at Skagit Dream Field
First round: West Seattle vs. Ferndale, 1 p.m.
Bellingham Regional at Joe Martin Field
First round: Lynden vs. Lindbergh, 10 a.m.
CLASS 1A STATE TOURNAMENT
Castle Rock Regional
First round: Montesano vs. Mount Baker, 10 a.m.
Moses Lake Regional at Larson Playfield
First round: Meridian vs. Naches Valley, 1 p.m.
NOTE: Regional championship games would follow at 4 p.m. for any teams that win.
Look for a live gamecast from Ferndale's games at the Mount Vernon Regional at bellinghamherald.com/sports
Reach DAVID RASBACH at email@example.com or call 715-2271.