That's a bold statement when you consider the Pac-12 has five teams ranked in the USA Today/ESPN Top 25 poll. The Cougs open things up Friday vs. Texas State of the Sun Belt Conference at 4 p.m., with TSU coming off a 24-32-1 campaign last year.
Lees spent the last three seasons as the assistant coach/recruiting coordinator at Oklahoma State and the previous 11 seasons at Oregon State.
“The excitement for me has been building for 46 years,” said Lees, describing the emotions surrounding his first head coaching job and what it will be like to lead the Cougars on Friday.
Lees didn’t wait long to start making moves in Pullman. After Bill Moos tapped Lees to take over Cougar baseball, he went about finding “the guy” who would take the mound to begin each series. He found him in WSU’s closer, third-year junior righty Ian Hamilton.
“About 30 minutes after I got the job (last) June I said to Ian, ‘Are you ready to become a Friday night starter?’ He said, ‘Absolutely.’” Hamilton, who led the Pac-12 in saves last year, began his transition from closer to starter during summer ball.
“I like to think of myself as a coach who tries to inspire his kids," said Lees. "(Someone) who enjoys the process of kids developing, who understands there are going to be failures but helps them to get over that so they can be successful.”
Lees said he addressed pitching, the most critical assistant coach position he says, by bringing Dan Spencer on board. Lees coveted Spencer because “he’s developed a lot of good pitchers” and recruited to championship teams. Spencer was an integral part of the Oregon State staff that led Oregon State to back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007. Collegiate Baseball Magazine named him the National Pitching Coach of the Year in 2007.
Lees doesn't like to name captains, he instead wants to have 29 leaders. Patrick McGrath and Hamilton are two good examples who have taken leadership roles. "(McGrath has) been through some of the battles, knows what the league is like." Lees said Hamilton isn’t overly talkative, but has become more vocal.
“I want our kids to follow kids like Patrick McGrath and Ian Hamilton not only because they are great role models but the do things the right way both on and off the field,” said Lees.
-CF.C’s Matthew Zimmer reports four players no longer show up on the Washington State roster. Fourth-year junior INF Shea Donlin, sophomore catcher Brennon Kaleiwahea, and two pitchers; sophomore Curtis Bafus and freshman James Mullin, are no longer listed. Lees did not go into detail on the departures.
-Hamilton, third-year sophomore southpaw Damon Jones and Parker McFadden, the true freshman right-hander out of Yelm, are slated to start the first three games vs. Texas State. Lees is considering true freshman righty Ryan Ward as Monday’s starter in the series finale. McFadden can hit 94 mph with his fastball, Lees said, and has had good off-speed stuff of late.
-Sophomore catcher JJ Hancock was hurt last week sliding into second and will be out “for a while,” said Lees.
-Hamilton talked a little about adding the change up to his repertoire but was mostly succinct when asked about his move from closer to starter. "I'm just going to go get after it," he said. Lees told CF.C he planned to go with a “closer by committee,’ recently. Second-year right-hander Ryan Walker could play a big role in the closers’ group.
-Redshirt junior Trek Stemp says he expects to play more in the outfield this year, but that he’s still keeping sharp in the infield at second base. Stemp, who praised Lees' enthusiasm, also said the championship pedigree Lees brings is paying dividends as the Cougs gear up for the season.
-In addition to Stemp, three others figure to be play multiple positions: Shane Matheny at third base and shortstop, Jack Strunc at second base and shortstop and McGrath at third base and first base.
Here's Lees' press conference: