DAILY JOURNAL SPORTS CORRESPONDENT
Last season’s Class 4A sectional at Whiteland showed the balance and quality of baseball in Johnson County.
Center Grove knocked off title-holder and two-time defending county champion Franklin 3-1 in the first round. Whiteland topped Greenwood 3-2 in one semifinal.
The host Warriors then knocked off Franklin Central, which entered the tournament with 20 wins, to capture their first sectional title since 2011.
The result was not a shock to at least one involved party.
“If you look at their schedule from last year, it was as tough as anyone’s,” Franklin coach Ryan Feyerabend said of Whiteland. “They lost a lot of close games (during the regular season). So what they did in sectionals didn’t surprise me at all.”
“That’s what makes our sectional so competitive and tough,” he continued. “By that point we’ve all seen everybody’s arms, everybody is well-prepared, and it’s just good, tough baseball.”
Whiteland coach Scott Sherry agreed.
“When you talk about Johnson County baseball, all these kids know each other,” he said. “It’s good baseball with good coaching staffs. Records don’t matter when you play each other. There’s that self-pride. You don’t want to lose to someone else from the county.”
Coming off a season of transition, the Trojans want to repeat last year’s regular-season success and then add to it with an extended run in the state tournament.
Keith Hatfield was named head coach in mid-December 2013, taking over for longtime coach Dave Gandolph. That late change in leadership meant Hatfield and his staff had limited time with the Trojans before the 2014 season began.
“We weren’t really able to have our first workout together until after Christmas break,” Hatfield said. “Really, the first month or so we were just learning the kids’ names and positions and couldn’t start teaching.
“This year, we had the entire fall and have been going since mid-November.”
That closer relationship between head coach and players should help ease the loss of five starters from last year’s team, which went 18-10.
Junior lefty Jacob Cantleberry is the most likely candidate to lead what is expected to be a deep pitching staff.
“He really made a big jump over the summer,” Hatfield said. “And there’s no question he’s going to shoulder the load for us.”
Seniors Josh Hart and Jay Doyle give Hatfield flexibility in how he sets up his staff. Both are capable of starting or relieving but are most likely to begin the season in the rotation. Doyle led the team in appearances and saves last year.
His move to the rotation will be made easier by junior Joey Drury’s presence in the bullpen. Hatfield said that while the starting shortstop is good enough to slot into the rotation, his arm is suited to being the top reliever.
Offensively, the Trojans will look to use their legs as weapons.
“We have a ton of speed, and I think we can put a lot of pressure on teams with it,” Hatfield said. “Our batting average may not be great, but because of walks and forcing errors, our on-base percentage could be really good and give guys chances for a lot of RBIs.”
Senior center fielder Devon Hensley, a University of Indianapolis recruit, hit over .300 last year. Junior catcher Nathaniel Coy begins his third year as varsity starter. He hopes to have better health this year and will fill the 3-hole. Hart, who hit fifth last year, will provide another potent bat.
Hatfield said those experienced players will need to bring along the younger players in preparation for a difficult Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference schedule, which is loaded with NCAA Division I-caliber pitching.
“We lost a ton of talent, and we’re a little inexperienced,” Hatfield said. “But that’s a great core that returns. There’s a lot of talent on this team.
“If people develop and play the way I think we can, with the right draw I think we can make a really deep run into the tournament.”
The Lancers lost just one member of last season’s team. Returning experience, combined with a more rigorous offseason program, have hopes within the program high that they will play their best baseball in May.
Among Edinburgh’s top returners is senior Kevin Johnson. He is set to be Edinburgh’s No. 1 pitcher. He also can play any infield position and led the team in hitting last year.
Head coach Cole Zook said two other seniors will join Johnson in being leaders.
“Elliott Parmer is a great leader in the way he handles himself, gives 110 percent at every practice and always shows a very positive attitude,” Zook said. “And Eric Cravens does a lot of really good things on and off the field, too.”
Parmer will play center field, while Cravens will catch and man the corner infield positions.
Zook said two newcomers should help Johnson carry the offensive load. Junior Jentry Lange, in his first year at Edinburgh, hit well in the offseason. And Zach Murphy, only a freshman, has been solid in the batting cages.
That cage work is a sign of the improving support for the program. Edinburgh added an indoor hitting facility with three batting cages, and Zook instituted a broader offseason workout program.
Edinburgh is bidding for its first sectional title since 2011.
“I think we’ll be better, more competitive this year,” Zook said. “It will be interesting to see how the progress we made over the summer and in the offseason pays off.”
By most measures, Franklin had a successful 2014 campaign. The Grizzly Cubs were in the Mid-State conference race until the final game and entered the sectional having won their second-straight Johnson County Tournament championship.
But Franklin lost an opening-round sectional game to Center Grove and was not able to repeat as sectional champion.
Despite losing eight players from last year, Franklin appears primed to contend for county, conference and sectional titles again this year, thanks to what is arguably the best 1-2 pitching combination in the county.
Senior Evan Giles will fill the rotation’s top spot once again. The Indiana State recruit has pitched well in big games each of the past two years and appears poised for a stellar senior season, according to Feyerabend.
“Evan’s refined his game, worked on his secondary pitches and location and focused on the mental side of the game,” Feyerabend said. “He’s pretty much the same guy who will get after people like in the past. He wants to be exceptional, though, and play baseball for a long time. He’s put in the work to make that possible.”
Following Giles will be junior Andrew Hartkorn who came on strong during his sophomore year, particularly late in the season.
That duo will be important even when not on the mound. Depending on arm soreness and pitching matchups, Feyerabend said that Giles will see time in right field, as a designated hitter and perhaps at first base as well. Hartkorn will also DH and play in the outfield.
Two other seniors return. Kyle Thompson will fill the utility role, plugging in wherever the Cubs need him. And Ryan Torrance started in the outfield a year ago.
Junior first baseman Dylan Drybread also will help key the Franklin offensive attack.
Feyerabend said that while there are still questions about the Cubs’ ability to score runs, he believes their success will come from the right approach at the plate.
“We need to have the mentality that it doesn’t matter who is on the mound for us” he said. “We need to score runs, regardless.”
Last season the Woodmen were in rebuilding mode, looking to replace a talented class of 2013. That inexperience was one reason the Woodmen struggled in close games, dropping seven contests by a single run.
This year, however, Greenwood should be improved, returning the bulk of its roster from a year ago.
The biggest question mark will be at the top of their rotation. They must replace graduated pitchers Mitch Caster and Marty Underwood, who compared favorably to the top of any rotation they faced.
“They carried the load on the mound and kept us in games just by the fact that they were able to pitch well,” head coach Andy Bass said.
Reed Werner, a junior who started as a freshman, is one candidate for the top spot. Joining him will be seniors Tanner Skeel and Sam Orem.
When not on the mound, Skeel will also play first base and can catch. Orem will be at third base, and Werner will play right field.
A third returning senior starter is Brayton Buchanan, who will see time behind the plate and in the outfield.
Four juniors will play key roles as well. Jackson Daugherty will play in the outfield, Brayton England can play third, Preston Ley will play shortstop and pitch, and Lucas Marko will catch.
Greenwood Christian Academy
Expectations rising at Greenwood Christian Academy.
The Cougars went 15-13 a year ago and won the program’s first-ever sectional championship. They lost to eventual Class A state champion Shakamak in the regional semifinals.
Coach Doug Hagist said the sectional title was well-earned, if not a bit of a surprise.
“It was a great win for the program,” he said. “What made it special was it was just our third year for baseball and how quickly the guys have bought into what we want to do and how hard they worked at it.
“I certainly did not expect it.”
While six seniors graduated from that team, six starters return.
The lineup is well-balanced. Senior first baseman Alec Brown hit over .500 last year. Brown, senior Braden Murry and junior Krae Sparks are all threats to deliver extra-base hits and knock in runs. Senior outfielder Jacob Hagist, and juniors Nate Weems and Nobie Pearcy will be relied on to get on base and create scoring opportunities with their quickness.
Murry and Sparks will pace the starting rotation, as well.
Hagist added that a beefed-up schedule — which features Mooresville, Scecina and Seton Catholic — will have Greenwood Christian more prepared for the postseason than in the past. He believes they have the experience to handle those regular season tests.
“Talent-wise, we’re going to be a little better than last year,” he said. “But last year, with all those seniors, we had tons of leadership. What I need is for a couple leaders to step forth.”
The Braves face the biggest rebuilding challenge of any county team. They must replace 11 seniors who graduated from last season’s squad.
Coach Adam Blackburn sees that as an exciting opportunity for him and his staff.
“We really only have three returning starters,” said Blackburn, who begins his third season at Indian Creek. “While we are very young, and a lot of the players who will play at the varsity level are unproven, we do have a pretty athletic group of kids, probably the most athletic group I’ve had since I’ve been here.
“We’re excited about the prospect of having all these athletes because we feel like we can develop them.”
At the plate, junior Tyler Parks will begin the season as the most experienced hitter. Blackburn said he is relying on Parks to set an example for the rest of the lineup.
“I’m looking for someone to really step up and get some timely hits and give us some production,” said Blackburn. “That would be Tyler Parks. Hopefully he will embrace that role because we’re looking for him to lead us offensively.”
Last season, sophomore Max Walls filled the No. 3 spot in the rotation. This year, he is the clear choice as staff ace. Blackburn said Walls has good off-speed stuff and can locate his pitches well, and thus will rely on his defense to get outs.
With so many positions filled by players who saw limited innings a year ago or are new to the varsity level, Blackburn said he believes this year will set the stage for greater success down the road.
“Maybe we’ll make some noise this year, but we’re really looking forward to the future because they are so athletic.”
Despite entering sectional play with just nine wins last year, Whiteland emerged as the champion. The Warriors won their regional semifinal and then fell to Castle 2-1 in the regional championship game.
Although they lost five seniors, coach Scott Sherry said he believes the Warriors are poised to be a contender in the state tournament again this year.
Perhaps Whiteland’s most complete player is senior shortstop Branton Sanders. A three-year starter, Sanders will hit at the top of the order.
The cleanup spot belongs to another senior, first baseman/designated hitter Austin Browning. Senior Jacob Roberson, who can also play first base, is another bat that Sherry will rely on to kick-start an offense that begins the year with question marks.
“Offensively, we really have to keep working,” Sherry said. “There are just so many good pitchers in our sectional. Pitching and defense wins games, but it always seems to come down to a crucial at-bat or two when you need a base hit with a runner in scoring position.
“That’s going to be this team’s biggest challenge. If we can do that, I think we can compete with anybody.”
On the mound, two juniors will anchor the rotation. Christian Curry and Caleb Deiter both pitched significant innings last year.
Sherry said he sees similarities between this year’s squad and last year’s regional finalists.
“Last year’s team never gave up. They competed until the end,” he said. “We had a good core of seniors that were two- to three-year players, and we kind of have the same thing this year.
“We’re just hopeful that our seniors can lead us and pull us along and we can peak at the end of the year like last year.”