Sports

Kitsap players relish chance to shine for hometown team

Local college players were forced to look outside the West Sound for years if they wanted to play summer baseball.

But since the Kitsap BlueJackets began play two years ago, those players now have the option to play near home at the Kitsap Fairgrounds.

“I was really excited when they named the team here,” said Kyle Howe, a former North Kitsap standout who now pitches for the University of Nevada. “As soon as I heard about it, I told my coach at Columbia Basin that I wanted to play here and didn’t want to go anywhere else.”

Howe is one of five players from Kitsap County on the Jackets’ roster. The others include infielder Josh Meeker (Port Orchard), pitcher Barrett Kanyer (Indianola) and outfielders Aaron Johnson (Seabeck) and Tyler Owens (Silverdale).

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Meeker, who graduated in 2002 from South Kitsap. “It’s nice when you’re able to sleep in your own bed and eat your mom’s home cooking. The host mom’s are great, but there’s nothing like your own mom’s cooking.”

Each come from different backgrounds. Howe once was a well-regarded pitcher in high school before undergoing “Tommy John” surgery to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He was drafted out of high school in the 14th round by Kansas City, but didn’t sign. Howe said he expects to be the No. 1 starter next season at Nevada and his time with the Jackets’ helps him prepare for that. He also said his arm now is healthy.

“For the most part, I’m feeling comfortable with where I’m at,” said Howe, who throws between 88-92 mph. “(My velocity) could come up a little bit more, but right now I’m pitching well and I’m comfortable with what I have.”

Kitsap coach Matt Acker said he’s seen significant development in Howe’s three years with the team. Howe, who has been the most successful of the local players this summer, improved his record to 3-1 and lowered his ERA to 1.32 after a 11-2 win Thursday against Bellingham.

“We’ve seen Howe mature for the last three years,” he said. “A great example is (Thursday) when I honestly thought he was crappy. He didn’t have control over his breaking ball and he was throwing lots of pitches. He would’ve lost two years ago. He would’ve thrown four innings maybe and (Thursday) he threw eight strong and gets a (win). That’s impressive to see how far he’s come.”

Kanyer actually commuted to play at O’Dea, where he helped lead the Fighting Irish to a state championship as a senior in 2005, but he also developed elbow problems and redshirted his freshman year. He hopes the experience helps him develop some secondary pitches — he primarily relies on his fastball — and possibly gain a spot in WSU’s rotation. The Cougars’ top starter last season, Wayne Damon Jr., graduated and recently signed a free-agent contract with the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization.

“Kanyer had a great summer last year and had kind of a tough road not getting a whole lot of opportunities at WSU,” Acker said. “He’s an extremely competitive kid — I’m glad he’s back here and I think he’s learning a lot.”

Meeker went on a mission for the Church of Latter-day Saints and missed two season before he returned to play at Olympic College in 2006. He played this spring at Austin Peay State in Tennessee. For him, it’s an opportunity to return home.

“Going to school across the country in Tennessee is tough because you don’t see your family and friends very much,” Meeker said. “But here, you get a chance to do that and you get to play in front of your home crowd. I love doing that and it’s an experience you won’t have your whole life.”

Johnson, who plays at The Citadel — The Military College of South Carolina — and actually started the season with the Jackets’ feeder team in Tacoma. His former Central Kitsap teammate, Owens, plays for Acker at Green River Community College in Renton.

“It’s nice not to have to drive very far,” Johnson said. “It’s a good chance to play against good competition and see good pitching.”

Some of the local players faced one another in high school or before that, but none seemed to recall — or wanted to acknowledge — how they fared against their teammates in the past.

“When I was a sophomore, I played against Meeker at South and I played against Barrett in Babe Ruth for many years,” Howe said. “It’s fun feeling to be teammates with them.”

Kanyer said “it’s a great atmosphere” and “we help each other out and give advice.”

That’s a little different than two years ago when Acker said the only players from Kitsap County were Howe and former South star Adam Siler.

“We kind of got our reputation out there a little bit and got some of the guys to stick around,” he said. “I think we’ve got a good mix of that.”

Acker said how a player affects team chemistry is the primary factor he considers when recruiting. And although he doesn’t specifically target just Kitsap-area players when recruiting, he’s happy to have this group on his team.

“All of them are good kids and represent the area well,” he said.

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