Johnson County’s high school baseball teams combine such a variety of experience, strengths and weaknesses, it can be difficult to pinpoint a trend.
If there is one common strong suit, however, onlookers will find it 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate.
Virtually every county coach mentioned pitching as a strength this season.
Here’s a look each of the county’s seven programs.
Center Grove returns a strong pitching corps but must replace six graduated starters from last year’s team, which finished 24-6 and won county, Metropolitan Conference and Class 4A Whiteland Sectional titles.
“We return our Nos. 1, 3 and 4 pitchers, and we were really, really good defensively, which is one of the reasons our pitchers were so good,” third-year coach Keith Hatfield said. “We lost a lot of speed, so defense and speed would be the two biggest question marks.
“I think we’ll hit OK.”
Seniors Jacob Cantleberry and Conner Cantrell, and junior Jack Kellams are the returning pitchers. The Trojans also return seniors Joey Dridy (shortstop) and Tye Thixton (center field).
Hatfield’s counting on junior Nick Coy (left field) and sophomores Michael Wyman (first base) and Ryan Sauter (infield) to help fill the graduation voids.
“I don’t want to call it a rebuilding year, but this is by far the most inexperienced program I’ve had,” Hatfield said. “The biggest thing is going to be how the new guys adjust to the varsity game.”
First-year coach Michael Bryant inherits a young roster trying to build on last year’s 7-15 season.“We’re freshman- and sophomore-dominant,” Bryant said. “I know we’re going to take our lumps because we’re young, but I’m pretty confident.
“My biggest worry is that I don’t know where I’m going to play a lot of kids who deserve playing time.”
The Lancers will feature three seniors, one of whom (Marcus Ruch) is new to the program. Another, Gentry Lang (pitcher/second base) is playing his second year of high school baseball. They’ll join fellow senior Kinser Bryant (utility).
Sophomores Zach Murphy (pitcher/infield) and Parker Bryant (catcher/outfield) return from last year’s varsity squad.
“We’ve got eight or nine guys who can (pitch),” Michael Bryant said. “We only had one error in our scrimmage (against Hauser), so defensively I think we’ll be really solid.
“Just about everybody on the roster got a hit in that scrimmage.”
The Grizzly Cubs hope to bounce back from an 8-18 season, during which coach Ryan Feyerabend said an inexperienced team showed its youth.“We were relatively young last season,” Feyerabend said. “With several returning guys seeing a lot of action, we like our chances to have a quality season.”
Seniors Andrew Hartkorn, Austin Frankl and Josh Frazier, all pitchers and outfielders, join fellow seniors Dylan Drybread (infielder/pitcher) and Zach Lee (catcher/infielder) as returners.
Juniors Jamie Burnett (infield), Jacob Heuchan (pitcher/outfielder), Stone Peddycord (infield), Jerris Lee (outfield-catcher) and Isaac McCullough (infield), along with sophomore Alex MacLennan (infielder/catcher), also return.
Feyerabend touted the Cubs’ hitting potential but expressed slight concern about their pitching.
“Hitting has been something the guys have worked on over the winter to continue to improve,” he said. “We have some good arms, but pitching is an area we need to improve, and I feel we have.”
Franklin returns all position players from last year’s team except catcher Ryan Torrance. Feyerabend hopes a couple of sophomore newcomers, Michael Couet and Kyle Davis (who will also play infield), can add to the pitching depth.
Fellow sophomores Luke Bramlett (utility) and Jonah Rockey (outfield) also figure to see some action.
Woodmen coach Andy Bass, who is in his 19th season, said this year’s squad might be the fastest he’s had.“We’ve got three guys on our team that have run the 60-yard dash in under seven seconds,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of guys who can swing the bat well, and our pitching depth is as good as it’s been in the last few years.”
Greenwood’s roster is loaded with returners from last year’s 14-14 group.
Senior outfielder-pitcher Reid Werner, a University of Indianapolis recruit, leads the experienced group, along with classmates Jackson Daugherty (outfield), Brayton England (third base-designated hitter), Preston Ley (shortstop) and Nick Stone (pitcher).
Juniors Jarrett Caster (second base/pitcher), Dylan Rosado (outfield) and Damon Maynard (catcher-shortstop-outfield), and sophomores T.J. Bass (catcher/third base) and Jordan Martin (outfield/pitcher) also return.
Bass will also count on contributions from newcomers Lucas Marko (senior infield/catcher), Connor Stout (junior outfield/second base), Mason Stunick (junior first base/pitcher), junior McCauley Stunick (outfield/pitcher) and sophomore Jacob Gray (first base/pitcher).
“Health is going to be a key factor, but with what we have coming in, we’re in position to compete for hopefully a county or (Mid-State) conference championship or a postseason run,” Bass said. “We just need to improve on our consistency.
“Last year, we’d have a stretch where a guy would have a great week, and then the next week, he’s not a factor.”
Greenwood Christian Academy
The Cougars’ program has existed only four years but already owns two sectional titles (2014 and 2015), and it took eventual Class A state champ Shakamak to eliminate Greenwood Christian from last year’s state tournament in the Morristown Regional finalThe rapid success has allowed their coach, Doug Hagist, who founded the program, to build a winning culture that’s easy to impart to newcomers.
“Our seniors last year did a great job working with our younger players to have them ready to take over,” Hagist said. “It’s very gratifying to see how far this program has come in such a short period of time.”
Greenwood Christian will have to replace departed seniors Alec Brown, who ranked among the state leaders in batting average (.494), RBIs (42) and on-base percentage (.580), and pitcher Braden Murry, who won both of the Cougars’ sectional games.
The Cougars still return a solid nucleus, including seniors Krae Sparks (pitcher/first base), Nate Weems (center field/pitcher), Nolan Check (catcher/outfield/pitcher), Nobie Pearcy (third base/outfield) and Bryce Walters (third base/outfield/pitcher), and sophomore Joel Stinnett (shortstop/pitcher).
Meanwhile, seniors Ray Haltom (outfield) and Kip Wesner (second base), junior Camden Peters (outfield), and freshmen Colton Crick (pitcher/infield) and Griffin Huizinga (pitcher/utility) are newcomers who could make immediate contributions, Hagist said.
Count the Braves as another county team confident in its pitching, according to first-year coach Eddy Willis, who served as a Braves assistant coach before taking over.“In my nine-years plus, this is the deepest our pitching has been, and the most talent we’ve had,” Willis said. “Hitting was our weakness last year, but it seemed like most of our kids played summer ball and hit really well, so hopefully that translates.”
Indian Creek, which finished 8-11 last season, returns seven starters. They are seniors Tyler Parks (first base/catcher), Jarrett Rozzi (catcher/first base) and Sam Willis (center field/pitcher); junior Max Walls (infield/pitcher); and sophomores Jared DeHart (infield/pitcher), Dawson Read (infield/pitcher) and Dylan Sprong (outfield/pitcher).
Varsity newcomers include junior pitcher Eric Broughton, a Franklin transfer who Willis said would likely be the Braves’ ace, and freshman Trevor Ankney (pitcher-infield), who is expected to lead a strong group of underclassmen.
“We’re going to play a little small ball. We might have to, if we struggle with the bats,” Willis said. “We’ll bunt one through nine if we have to. We’ve probably already bunted more this year in practice than we did all of last year.”
The defending Mid-State Conference champion Warriors (10-2 league record, 15-9 overall) return five starters from that team, and ninth-year head coach Scott Sherry said pitching and defense will carry the Warriors this season.“Our teams over the last few years have played quality defense and thrown strikes,” Sherry said. “We’ll have to find ways to get creative to score runs. We have to be opportunistic.
“If the right guys get on base, (stealing) could be a possibility. We’ll take the extra base whenever we can.”
Seniors Caleb Deiter (pitcher/second base), Christian Curry (third base), Chris Miller (center field), Turner Ryan (first base) and Dakota Purdue (shortstop) are the Warriors’ returning starters.
Outfielders Bailey Watson (junior) and Chase Bennett (sophomore) are newcomers that Sherry said would likely see significant playing time.
Sherry said a Mid-State repeat and county and sectional crowns are realistic goals for the Warriors.
“We expect to win. That’s what the last few years have brought us,” Sherry said. “Anything less (than championships) is not a failure, but it’s not what people expect. These guys don’t want to be that group that doesn’t win a championship or doesn’t have a winning record.”