Slow start, fast finish? Soph stars think so

THE WSU BASEBALL team's rough start to the Pac-10 season didn't phase the club's confidence, say sophomore standouts Travis Coulter and Jared Prince. And after reclaiming the season with three consecutive wins at mighty Arizona and USC, they look to this weekend's home series with Stanford as a springboard. In wide-ranging interviews, Coulter and Prince talk about playoffs, injuries and pro ball.

"We're a couple of games away from being back in the race for this season ... I think we've proven we can play -- now we just need to do it," said Travis Coulter, a 5-8, 141-pound second baseman from Kennewick.

The Cougs are 21-20 overall and 4-11 in Pac-10 play with the Cardinal in Pullman for a three-game series starting Saturday. FSN Northwest will broadcast the opener live at 5:30 p.m.

"It's been real frustrating not seeing the wins," said Jared Prince, a 6-3, 186-pound outfielder/pitcher from Poulsbo. "But baseball is a funny game -- sometimes it takes a little while to figure it out and we've been putting them together as of late and sometimes it just clicks.

"We're playing good and we're winning some games and we're feeling good and practicing better. I really feel we're going to finish strong and make a good run in our regional."

Even in the face of their 1-9 start in Pac-10 action, team unity has been steadfast, both players say.

A year ago, with true freshmen Coulter and Prince playing a huge role, the Cougs created the first buzz around Bailey-Brayton Field in more than a decade, going 36-23 and winning 10 conference games. That effort, which very nearly earned a post-season bid, elevated expectations for this season -- although some naysayers around the West considered 2006 a flash in the pan.

"Mostly we just wanted to come in and prove everyone wrong and show how we could compete .. . We're basically the same team as last season and we're only missing a couple guys," said Coulter. "Obviously I'm not hitting the ball very well, so I might as well call out myself. And there are few other guys that needed to produce early ... but that's just baseball, sometimes things just don't go your way."

Coulter knows that roller-coaster ride well. He burst onto the scene as a true freshman last season, hitting .345, leading the Cougs in runs scored, and playing outstandng defense. A classic contact hitter, he had a 20-game hitting streak. This season, however, he's been hampered by a shoulder injury and is hitting .274 with six RBI.

Prince, too, has been on a roller-coaster ride. Last season he turned in arguably the finest freshman campaign in WSU history, hitting a conference-leading .401 and picking up six wins as a pitcher. He was named first-team all-conference, first-team Freshman All-American and third-team All-American. Sports Illustrated this winter picked him as one of the 25 top pro prospects in the nation.

This year he's hitting .281 and has pitched just five innings because of shoulder woes. Still, he's second on the team in RBI behind senior standout Jeff Miller.

"You have to come out everday and believe that you're going to go 5 for 5 and have a great day," Prince says. "I do believe that when it's not going good you're going to have that sense of doubt that might creep in, but you've just got to ... flush that out and go out with a positive mind."

Cougar assistant coach Travis Jewett says Coulter and Prince are quintessential ballplayers. "I couldn't nail down one thing to describe those guys, but desire and work ethic are definitely the first ones that come to min -- and the aim to be great," Jewett said. "They're good kids and they love to play, and they're going to get after it."

In perhaps the greatest compliment a college coach can offer a player, Jewett said Coulter and Prince are supreme marketing assets for Cougar baseball. "As far as recruiting goes, those two guys are going to be players that we're going to be hanging our hats one, not just for the rest of this year but for the rest of their careers," he said.

Both players, Jewett said, are destined for pro ball. Prince, like John Olerud many years ago, could get there with either his arm or his bat.

Whether that comes at the end of this year, or next or the next, remains to be seen.

Prince is clear when asked about the lofty draft projections for him this year. "I'm not going to touch that one. If it happens, it happens. I'm more than happy to come back to school and be the same guy next year," he said. "I've got some healing up to do as far as the body goes and we'll go from there."

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