New coaches, new outlook raise hopes for baseball teams
Southsider Voice correspondent
Two coaches take over storied high school baseball programs on the Southside: Keith Hatfield at Center Grove and Deron Spinks at Roncalli. Both have spent the preseason getting to know their players.
Hatfield left Roncalli after four years to replace the Trojans’ legendary Dave Gandolph, who has moved on to become assistant athletic director and head baseball coach at Scecina on the Northside.
Hatfield inherits a winning program from Gandolph, who left a program with great baseball facilities and a traditional work ethic. Spink returns to coaching after a successful tenure at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky.
“There is a great foundation here,” Hatfield said. “I’m sure I’m doing things differently than what he (Gandolph) did, but I want to set our program and not deviate from it.”
Having coached an independent team for four years, Hatfield faces the challenge of juggling hurlers so front-line pitching is available for Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference games. “It’s going to take a while to get the right lineup down,” he admitted.
After a break from coaching, Spink has surfaced at Roncalli. “I’m concentrating on what our team needs to do on a daily basis, not what other teams are doing,” he said. “If we get better every day, that’s what I’m focusing on. We’ll have a team that plays hard, plays right and plays together.”
Meanwhile, some Southside teams are looking for redemption after letdowns in 2013.
Beech Grove reached a Class 3A sectional championship game but fell to Danville after making it to regionals in 2012. The Hornets graduated eight seniors but have 13 seniors this season.
“They’re hungry,” Hornets coach Doug Walters said. “We thought we would go farther last year, Most of our seniors have concentrated on baseball, so they have a lot of years together.”
Greenwood, which sent five players to play collegiate baseball, fell way short of expectations, losing its sectional opener to rival Center Grove 9-7.
“We have guys who are playing with a chip on their shoulder,” senior shortstop/pitcher Mitch Castner said. “There’s a lot of talent here that didn’t play on the varsity last year because the varsity roster was full of seniors. We know what we have this year and we know what we can do.”
Lutheran, with its one-two punch of J.C. Faubion and Bryce Brockett, fell one win short of reaching the Class A semistate last year.
“We want to go farther this year,” senior catcher Eli Goff said. “We have a lot of strength and depth.”
Even Greenwood Christian Academy with its third baseball team wants to climb in the playoffs. The Cougars reached a Class A sectional title game in 2012 but dropped their first playoff game last year.
Here’s the team-by-team outlook:
BEECH GROVE – The Hornets have plenty of seniors, including several players who were on the 2012 sectional championship team.
Walters has a veteran pitching staff with senior southpaws Dalton Ledgerwood and Clinton Pettigrew, right-handed Austin Waugh and sophomore David Corbin.
“Our guys know the game,” Walters said. “Our success revolves around pitching, and our defense is our strong suit. We’ll be a singles-hitting team with good speed.”
An experienced infield features returnees Ledgerwood at first, junior Zach Capps at second, senior Christian Little at shortstop and senior Jordan Sloan behind the plate. Sloan career batting average is better than .400.
The all-senior outfield consists of Nick Kinkaid in left field, Ben Harmon in center and Justin Stauffer in right field.
CENTER GROVE – Hatfield’s debut at the school has been made easier by nine seniors.
The Trojans will rely upon third-year starting senior pitcher Jay Prior, 6-3, 1.93 ERA; junior shortstop/outfielder Devon Hensley; and pitchers Elijah Weartz, 2-1, 3.29 ERA; and Zeke Howie, .396, 19 hits.
Key returnees include senior outfielders Patrick Norris, .400, 20 RBIs; and Aaron Hunt, 360, 13 runs; senior third-baseman Jacob Wilkerson, .294, 20 hits; and catchers, junior Nathaniel Coy, .393, 22 hits; and senior Sean McConnaughhay. Versatile senior Braden Sammons hit .284 and drove in 10 runs.
“They are making sure that I get the type of team that I want,” Hatfield said of the returning Trojans. “My teams are always aggressive, always disciplined. We’re going to pitch well, but we’ll have to find ways to score.”
Hatfield gets his first taste of MIC action against Lawrence Central on the road Tuesday and back at Center Grove on April 9; each game starts at 5 p.m.
FRANKLIN CENTRAL – Coming off a 21-win season, the defending Marion County tournament champions return with solid hitting and front-line pitching.
“Our pitching depth is our number one strength,” coach John Rockey said. “Our top three pitchers are back, and we have three pitchers who lost only one game from the JV team.”
Southpaw Zack Whitehead, 4-1, 1.56 ERA, is the Flashes’ hardest-throwing pitcher; Jake Sprinkle, 6-1, 1.01 ERA, relies on location pitches, and Kevin Hammond, 7-1, 2.05 ERA, mixes in a curve ball with his fastballs.
The Flashes return with three heavy-hitting seniors in third-baseman Jimmy Yates, .463, 40 RBIs; center fielder Jon Knies, .349, 34 runs; and catcher Brandon Ruble, .314.
“We have three leaders with the bat, so we expect some good pop from them,” Rockey said. “We are looking for a leadoff hitter.”
The Flashes have holes to fill at second base, shortstop and in the outfield due to graduation.
FC moves up 10 players from a 19-1 junior varsity team: pitcher/second baseman Ben Sprinkle, outfielders Jake Potee and Cory Durm, first baseman Ryne Carnes, pitcher Tyler Cooper, Aaron Snyder, Conner McKenzie, Caleb Melloh, Logan Gillespie and Brian Little.
“We won 21 games last year, and it’s really a big deal to have our top three hitters and top three pitchers back,” Rockey said.
GREENWOOD – The Woodmen want observers to believe that little is expected of them this season.
Gone are 12 seniors, including five graduates to collegiate baseball: Landon Fink, .485, 48 hits, the University of Indianapolis; Alex Krupa, .463, 44 hits, Iowa Western; Conner Beidelman, .407, 37 hits, Marian; Tylor Martin, .316, 25 hits, Danville (Ill.) College; and Jon Bowen, .294, UIndy.
The Woodmen enjoyed lofty preseason 4A rankings last season but wound up 17-11 and did not get past their first sectional game.
Greenwood returns with three seniors and six seniors up from JV. Coach Andy Bass has a group that is genuinely excited to suit up in varsity uniforms. “All these seniors would have played varsity last year except we had a core group of seniors. These kids have experienced winning, and they have the attitude that they’re going to win. We kind of like the underdog role.”
Castner (3-3, 2.96 ERA) hit .291 and had 17 RBIs. Seniors Marty Underwood, outfield/pitcher, and Jake Still, outfielder, return with juniors Brayton Buchanan and Sam Orem and sophomore outfielder/pitcher Reid Werner, .290.
“We really have a lot of depth on the mound,” Bass said. “We’ll have to play a lot of ‘small ball’ at the plate. We had four guys in our lineup last year who could hit the ball out of the park, but we’re not going to be like that.”
GREENWOOD CHRISTIAN ACADEMY – Sectional championships by the boys soccer and basketball teams give rise to greater optimism among coach Doug Hagist’s baseball team.
Senior Gunnar Rastenburg, junior Jacob Hagist and sophomore Bryce Walters were on both sectional championship teams. Five other players were on one of those teams: These Cougars are used to winning.
“We have good depth and a good mix of seniors, juniors and sophomores,” Hagist said. “We have most of our pitchers back, and I’ve got some hitters who have power, some who can put the ball in play and are fast on the bases.”
The Cougars’ pitching corps consists of senior Seth Walters, 2-6, 3.23 ERA; junior Braden Murray, 1-5, 5.06 ERA; sophomore Nate Williams, 1-2, 1.24 ERA; Rastenburg, Bryce Walters and newcomer sophomore Krae Sparks.
Infield positions are up for grabs, although junior Alec Brown (.426, 14 RBIs) at first base, junior Hagist (.343, 12 hits) at second, Murray at shortstop and Sparks may have the inside track. The outfield is set with senior Jacob Stephenson (.229, 14 runs) in left, junior Tad Thompson (.235) in center and Williams in right.
The Cougars already are benefitting from new equipment – their first indoor batting cage and pitching machine.
“Our hitters are making good contact with the ball,” Hagist said.
LUTHERAN – The Saints are coming off a 19-win season but are reloading in a different way.
“Don’t look for a lot of big hits from us,” coach Dick Alter said. “We have the capability to score runs, but we will have to do it in different ways.”
The Saints’ infield is intact with Eli Goff at first, Ryan Pritt at second, Braiden Moran at third and junior Cody Moncel at short stop. The all-junior outfield consists of Addison Robertson, Austin Mays and Seth Hougesen. Junior Jason Sneed is behind the plate.
Goff, Mays and Hougsen stand out as the Saints’ top hurlers; however, Alter can call upon most of his players to pitch.
MANUAL – First-year coach Ryan Carr takes over a talented but inexperienced team.
Carr, a former assistant coach at Tech and Mount Vernon, has Dominican Republic native Juan Rodriquez on the mound or at shortstop, returnee Jason Breeding behind the plate, freshman pitcher Richard Markel and sophomore infielder Mikey Murrell.
Breeding, a junior, played varsity baseball as a freshman. Manual did not field a team last year and has only 13 players on this year’s squad. There is no JV or freshman team.
Rodriquez, according to Carr, has a lot of baseball savvy but is a raw talent.
“Our goal is to play well at the end of the season,” Carr said. “The first part of the season will be ifficult, but all the players have shown a really good attitude about learning the game.”
The Redskins visit Greenwood Christian on April 7 and host Beech Grove on April 9 for 5 p.m. games.
PERRY MERIDIAN – The Falcons have lost 11 wins on the mound due to the graduation of Jordan Tackett (4-1), Matt Bush (4-2), Brendan Dudas (2-2), who plays for UIndy, and Colin Miller (1-5).
Coach John Carpenter hopes to make up for the losses with pitchers who only threw for a combined 34 innings: seniors Collin Timmons and Dayton Brummett and sophomores Mitchell Garrity and Max Heyob.
“We also lost four of our top six hitters,” Carpenter said. “If we can get some guys around our best hitters to get on base, we could become more of an offensive threat than we were last year.”
Timmons, who also plays right field, was the heavy hitter last year, .429, 26 RBIs, 36 hits and a team-high tying four home runs. Heyob, a shortstop, hit .341 with 29 hits, and center fielder Garrity, .275, had a team-high 22 walks. Junior Kyler Fleener adds stability to the infield.
“Our schedule is brutal, but we expect our kids to play hard every day,” Carpenter said. “We will have a little bit of pop in our lineup, but certainly that’s not our game.”
SOUTHPORT – The Cardinals return with a young squad after graduating six of their top 10 hitters from a 5-13 team.
Returning seniors are third baseman/pitcher Wyatt Cullom, .323, 1-2, 4.13 ERA; catcher A.J Wampler, .222; center fielder/pitcher Antonio Cortes, .364; and infielder/pitcher Zach Odom, 1-2. Junior Mike Jones and sophomore shortstop Luke Johnston, a three-sport athlete, also return.
“We’re going to be young, which means we have to throw some freshmen into varsity action early,” coach Scott Whitlock said. “Our younger players will have to learn quickly about the speed and pace of varsity competition. We do have a mixture of some speed and some pop.”
Whitlock is encouraged by a revised off-season strength and conditioning program that has increased the speed of the ball thrown by most pitchers and the muscularity of his players.
Pitching, a weakness last season, could be turned into a strength this time around with eight hurlers.