It was just a year.
But what a year it was for the Lakeridge baseball program and head coach D.J. Whittemore.
Whittemore, who came to Lakeridge after one season as an assistant at West Linn High School and the previous 12 seasons as head coach at Western Nevada College, led the Pacers to a stunning turnaround in 2019.
One year after Lakeridge went just 4-22 overall and finished tied for last in the Three Rivers League, Whittemore rejuvenated the program, helped lift the team to a fourth-place finish in league play, and later, into the Class 6A state quarterfinals after entering the postseason as the state's seventh-ranked team.
Now, after just one year, Whittemore has announced his exit from the Lakeridge program in favor of a job as pitching coach at Cal State Bakersfield.
"I accepted a job from (head coach) Jeremy Beard to move to Bakersfield to coach for several reasons," Whittemore said. "First, because he is a close friend and someone I have known and worked with for 20 years. Second, because he is an outstanding coach and runs a first-rate program in the baseball hotbed of the world."
Whittemore said that the new opportunity in Bakersfield also gave him the chance to coach baseball again as a full-time job (high school coaches are paid stipends for the seasons they coach, with most of them also employed as teachers).
"(That was) something Lakeridge was not able to match," Whittemore said. "At the end of the day, I still have to make a living."
While his stay in Lakeridge was brief, Whittemore definitely made an impact. After the Pacers struggled through the final two seasons of Marco Tavera's four-year run as head coach, finishing seventh each year in the TRL and going just 5-29 in league and 10-42 overall, Lakeridge's turnaround in 2019 was both swift and astounding.
The Pacers opened 2019 with a three-game winning streak in the season's first week, dropped one game, then bounced back with four straight wins over the next eight days to improve to 7-1. In the process, Lakeridge surpassed its win totals from 2017 and 2018 in just the first 20 days of the 2019 season. And when the Pacers beat West Linn 5-4 on April 26, they improved to 11-8 and surpassed the team's win total from the past two seasons combined.
"I think that D.J. helped change the mental state of the program," explained incoming senior pitcher/first baseman Cooper Justice, a first-team all-Three Rivers League selection. "It wasn't like we had a ton more talent than in previous years, (but) we mentally decided that losing wasn't an option."
"What will always stand out to me from my year in the program is the commitment to excellence on behalf of the parents and players," Whittemore said. "The 'buy-in' was phenomenal. The players worked so hard and were very unselfish."
By year's end, the Pacers — with additional leadership from assistant coaches Beau Day and Will Pierce — had moved into the state's top 10, beat both Grants Pass and Tigard in the playoffs, and advanced to the state quarterfinals for the first time in more than a decade.
"I thought, relatively speaking, the team I coached had the best makeup of any team I ever coached," Whittemore said. "There were so many leaders and so many talented players who were willing to do what the team needed of them. I will never forget this experience."
"Winning is a mindset and that mindset was drilled into us as soon as D.J. got to Lakeridge," Justice added. "This is the reason that Lakeridge is turning into a very dangerous baseball program. Even though he is leaving, we still have that mindset. This is what will allow us to be successful in this upcoming season."
Whoever ends up serving as Pacers' head coach next year will have some talent to work with, along with the positive residue of the team's hard work in 2019. Justice returns after earning first-team all-Three Rivers League honors, as does shortstop Cam Clayton (an incoming junior who was also named to the all-state honorable mention team).
Also scheduled to return are Spencer Santana (an incoming senior who was named second-team all-league as an outfielder and honorable mention as a pitcher), pitcher John Taylor (an incoming senior named to the second team), designated hitter Brian Hamlin (an incoming senior named to the second team) and catcher Trent Allen (an incoming senior named to the honorable mention team).
"The future of the program is very bright," Whittemore said. Returning (Allen, Justice, Clayton, Santana, Taylor and Hamlin) is what every high school coach dreams about. And there is a lot of talent in the supporting cast and the younger players in the program. Nothing will surprise me regarding what this group accomplishes next year or beyond."
Beyond the wins and losses of 2019 and the potential for more success in the future, Whittemore left grateful that he'd been able to give his players a quality baseball experience.
"I am leaving with my head high because I know that coach Day and the other assistants gave everything we had every day to make this a great experience for the players," Whittemore added. "I am also leaving having learned a lot and been with some great friends and relationships that I will treasure."
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