College Baseball Preview: Deja Vu All Over Again

Centralia College players practice infield Tuesday afternoon at the Northwest Sports Hub in Centralia.

Blazers Reload: Centralia College Set to Begin Season Under Third Manager in Seven Months

By Jordan Nailon

jnailon@chronline.com

When the Trailblazers checked the lineup card before their first game of the season the veterans in the group will likely took note of the brand new scrawl assigning surnames to positions one through nine.

Kawika Emsley-Pai is the latest skipper for the boys in blue and yellow at Centralia College and you’ll have to forgive his players if they haven’t gotten used to his particular penmanship. They just haven’t had much time.

Emsley-Pai has only held the title of interim head coach in Centralia since Jan. 17 and his first game calling the shots for the Blazers will simultaneously mark his first game as head coach at the college level. However, with a six year career in Minor League Baseball under his belt Emsley-Pai is unlikely to be overwhelmed by the bright lights of the big stage.

Interestingly, his sudden rise to the helm of Blazers baseball can be attributed to the good fortune of his best friend since childhood, Cody Atkinson. After longtime Centralia coach Jake LeDuc resigned as head honcho last July, Atkinson was tabbed as the next leader of the program and he quickly brought Emsley-Pai on board as his primary assistant. However, Atkinson’s flashbang coaching tenure in the Hub City came to a surprising end when he accepted a position in Major League Baseball with the Cincinnati Reds organization just weeks before Spring Training began.

When Atkinson announced his departure from Centralia he touted the merits of his old friend Emsley-Pai and promised that their familiarity with each other would help to ease the difficult transition period from one regime to another. Emsley-Pai was subsequently tabbed as the interim head coach with roughly a month to go before the Blazers’ first game of the 2019 season.

“It’s been a blessing to have Cody here for a full half of the season because he was able to show me what it takes to be a head coach. Nobody is more driven or focused than that guy,” Emsley-Pai said. “Luckily for me Cody is so organized he’s basically given me his platform and I’m stepping in and running it.”

A catcher during his recently deceased playing days, Emsley-Pai rose all the way to the AAA level with the Pirates before hanging up his chest protector for good and fully embracing the coach’s life. However, this is not his first cup of coffee as a coach of young men. Emsley-Pai noted that he began running private lessons for younger ballplayers before he graduated high school and then latched on with Atkinson Baseball Academy to expand his influence. Most recently, he spent the last three years as coach of the 16U incarnation of the Northwest Bandits while serving as the catching coordinator for the entirety of the Bandits program.

As a 30-year old preparing to embark on his first season at the helm of an NWAC baseball team, Emsley-Pai says he is fulfilling a lifelong goal that began when he grew up watching both of his parents coach. Later on he wound up playing for legendary skippers Ed Cheff and Augie Garrido during his stints at Lewis and Clark State College and then at the University of Texas. “I’m excited to move up a level. As far coaching as a head coach it’s kind of a breath of fresh air because you have kids who are a little bit more mature and a little bit more passionate and fully committed to the lifestyle of baseball either as a career or a way to further their education,” he explained. “It’s my duty to pass on this knowledge to the next generation.”

As a former catcher Emsley-Pai is uniquely suited to communicating with the all of the Trailblazers, including the pitchers who tend to be an eccentric breed of ballplayer.

“I have background in all positions so that helps. I didn’t pitch in college or pro ball but as the catcher you are basically the second pitching coach. One thing you see a lot in the MLB is a lot of catchers as managers and I think that’s because we’re the only position that sees the entire field,” Emsley-Pai noted.

The Blazers suffered another shot to their coaching staff shortly after Atkinson turned Red when pitching coach Cam Margaris accepted a position at Campbellsville University in Kentucky. The loss of Margaris, who was a holdover from the LeDuc regime with 4.5 years logged in blue and yellow, represented another late breaking strike against continuity in the Blazers’ program. Still, with a few new faces in the mix, Emsley-Pai believes his opening day coaching staff is well suited to the task at hand.

Like Emsley-Pai, the two other fresh faces on the coaching staff have graced their very own baseball cards during their trek through the ranks of minor league baseball. Kramer Champlin, a former standout at Olympia High School, has taken over as pitching coach while Joash Brodin, who starred at North Thurston High School, will take over the hitting and outfield coaching responsibilities. Jason Watson represents the only returning experience on the Blazers’ bench and Emsley-Pai referred to him as a “super-utility guy” who helps to keep things running smoothly.

“I don’t think you’re going to see three coaches with pro experience on any college staff, let alone a JUCO college staff,” Emsley-Pai said.

Last year Centralia finished the season with a 8-18 record in the West Conference. That mark was good enough for fourth place and a spot in the NWAC Tournament where they registered a win over Mt. Hood to knock the Saints out of the running before watching their season come to an end one game later. With that taste of success lingering like sunflower seed salt on their lips, and the the hype surrounding the summertime hiring of Atkinson, expectations have been growing like weeds around Wheeler Field over the offseason.

Emsley-Pai knows that he’ll be expected to keep the ball rotating in the right direction this season. However, he’s also committed to using the first 16 non-league games of the season as an evaluation period for players who are looking to prove themselves to a new set of evaluating eyeballs.

“I’ve seen the guys who played here last year and I love them. They work hard. They do everything you ask of them to do as coach,” said Emsley-Pai, who also helped Atkinson assemble an impressive recruiting class through their assorted contacts. “I think this program is headed in the right direction and we’re just going to trust the process and believe in what we do.”

Emsley-Pai touted a few returning players in particular who will be essential to the Blazers’ success on the diamond this year.

Colton Titus, of Castle Rock, was the first player on that list. Last year, Titus garnered First Team All-Conference honors with his stick and his glove in the infield. This year he’ll be trusted to pitch and play a little outfield on days when his wing needs a rest.

“We all know he’s a stellar defender and as far as hitting goes he’s the most consistent guy we have,” said Emsley-Pai, who noted that Titus has committed to play ball at Towson University in Maryland next season.

Cole Doughty, a right handed pitcher and graduate of Napavine, was another returning Blazer who earned a nod from the Blazers’ new coach.

“He has the most innings returning. He’s an older player so he’s been a great leader for us and shows the other guys how to do their business,” Emsley-Pai said. “He’s got some funk.”

Andre Scheer is another pitcher who will look to build on successes from last season.

As for newcomers, Emsley-Pai touted a pair of transfers first and foremost. Festus Gilligan comes to Centralia from Everett College with a reputation as a speedy “spark plug” utility man. James Billotti arrived in the Hub City via Gonzaga after earning All-State honors at the 4A level as a high school senior last year in large part to his boomstick at the plate.

Nolan Wasson is a player with local ties who has shown flashes of promise during the preseason. The 2016 graduate of Centralia spent a year playing in Spokane before returning to Wheeler Field. Although he’s dealing with academic issues that will keep him off the field for the first run of the regular season Emsley-Pai is still eager to see what will happen when Wasson becomes eligible.

“He’s a very interesting one because you look at his body and the first thing you think is pure athlete, and it’s true,” Emsley-Pai said. “I think the momentum he’s building into this season will be very exciting to watch.”

With Lower Columbia again expected to set the pace in the conference Centralia will need to show proficiency in the details in order to hang tough in what promises to be a tight playoff race.

“Our strengths are definitely our defense and our speed and our hitting because we had a big league hitting coach (Atkinson) around helping to prepare our hitters,” Emsley-Pai noted. “I think we’re going to be known as the scrappy team that hopefully does the little things right and comes to the field everyday prepared. Usually when you do those things you wind up sitting on the right side of the field.”

During the day Emsley-Pai serves as an education advocate for the troubled youths at Green Hill School. He says he’d like to stick around as the skipper at Centralia College for years to come but he knows that nothing is guaranteed in life or baseball.

“This has been my dream to run a college program. So I moved my family down here. We just had a newborn in October and during the two months before my son’s birth I had to make that decision. That’s what I’m doing is pursuing my dream to be a head coach,” Emsley-Pai explained. “I’m going to focus and give my 100 percent to the kids that I have now and hopefully next year Bob (Peters) will invite me back.”

Centralia College is scheduled to host Clark College for a double-header at Wheeler Field on Saturday beginning at noon.

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