BY Rob Witham
All four Hanover County high school have high hopes for their 2018 seasons, which are scheduled to begin on Monday. While Atlee and Lee-Davis will face stiff competition in the new Region 5B, Hanover will look to take Region 4B honors on the way to what they hope will be another trip to state tournament play. Patrick Henry moves to 4B and will plan for a deeper trip into postseason play.
Hanover (23-3, Class 4 State Runner-Up in 2017) begins its 15th season under head coach Charlie Dragum. A mainstay in state tournament play, the Hawks won the final Virginia High School League (VHSL) Group AAA state championship in 2013, then won the former Group 4A titles in 2014 and 2016.
Now in Class 4, Region B, the Hawks will, again, look to a deep pitching staff to lead the way. Jack Dragum, a commit to the University of Virginia, will be the ace with a combination of speed and particularly good breaking pitch ability. When not on the mound, he provides exceptional experience at shortshop and brings pop to the middle of the batting order.
Camden Grimes, headed to Virginia Tech, will pitch, mostly handle third base, and can catch, showing great versatility, while Will Lopez (VMI) provides left-handed experience on the hill and good defense in center field.
Add in Nick Zona (James Madison), who can handle either second base or shortstop when he’s not pitching, and, again, the Hawks enjoy a depth on the mound few teams can match.
Managing them behind the plate will be second-year starter Michael Warley.
Hanover will miss some key contributors, including Antonio Balducci, a left-hander now at the University of Richmond, and outfielders Brian Sisson, Josh Plummer (Tennessee) and Nolan Caler.
“This year’s Hawks will need to find consistent corner outfield play and offensive production from those spots in the lineup,” Charlie Dragum noted.
Returning non-starters include Blake Doggett and Jack Goleski, two lefties who pitch and can play first base. Eric Anderson and Will Bowles will have opportunities on the hill, too. Newcomers Kion Murphy, Jordan Watkins, Noah Biggs and Colby Hutnan all have outfield experience and could help figure out who handles right and left field duties. Hanover’s season opens Tuesday night hosting Dinwiddie.
At Patrick Henry, now in Region 4B with the Hawks, head coach Sam Hart enjoys a good nucleus of players returning, and, like the Dragums at Hanover, the “like father, like son” scenario is in Ashland, too, as senior Hunter Hart patrols shortstop and helps power the batting lineup.
Chase Mills, Noah Zook, and Connor Logan all bring in mound experience, while Austin Odell helps anchor an outfield which can include speedster Terrance Oxendine as well as Zak Plageman. Mills will handle second base when not on the hill, giving the Patriots a very potent double play combination. Junior Cam Reed and sophomore Scott Gilman will see time behind the plate.
“We need to find a lead-off man, and a big bat in the middle of the order,” Sam Hart said when asked of his biggest concerns. “Twelve of our seventeen players are returning with varsity experience, eight of which are seniors. This is a new conference for us, so we don’t know what to expect.”
Other names to remember in Class 4, Region B after the Hawks and Patriots are an improved Midlothian team, who Patrick Henry hosts Tuesday, Louisa, Dinwiddie, plus Monacan, Powhatan, Caroline, and Fredericksburg-area teams Courtland and Chancellor.
For Atlee and Lee-Davis, it’s a return of sorts to the closest thing we’ll likely see that is reminiscent of the old “Central Region”, which is Class 5, Region B, a fifteen-team conglomerate of Richmond area teams from Hanover to Prince George.
For Atlee (17-8), it’s a return to playing local teams in the postseason, like Patrick Henry, with Conference 16 now in the VHSL dustbin. Second year head coach John Corbin has a lot of holes to fill, but, due to the depth of his 2017 roster, there’s a good group returning on which to build, led by junior Zach Beach, an early commit to 2016 College World Series champion Coastal Carolina, who will provide power, plus time on the mound as well as at first base.
Another key returnee is second-year starting pitcher John Kish, who has the potential to be one of the best hurlers in the Richmond area. Defensively, Adam Jewell at short and Nick Carlo at second provide important experience, while J.T. Fitzpatrick handles the hot corner, and pitches as well.
Jacob Smither and Preston Eacho provide critical depth on the mound for Corbin, who brings in no less than sixteen new players to varsity, thirteen of which are juniors.
“We lost our entire outfield from last year, and I will need to replace a good amount of innings on the mound,” Corbin said. “If the veteran seniors can keep us going early in the season, I believe that will give our younger guys time to acclimate to the varsity level…our team could flourish down the stretch.”
Atlee’s first test is Monday in Chesterfield at Clover Hill. Their Region 5B mates, and rivals, Lee-Davis, begin Tuesday at Douglas Freeman. The Confederates (14-5) again fell just short in the postseason and hope 2018 is finally the year they break through, returning to the state level where they last won in 2001.
Third-year head coach Tyler Johnson has serious holes to fill on the mound as both Matthew Holler and Bryan Diehr depart. Jake Stanley is the top returning pitcher and his success is key to Lee-Davis’ early hopes. Cole Harding and Kyle Hogan get their opportunities to shine on the hill, while Landown Watkins, Cameron Parent, Jalen Strattman and Brett Allen will all have chances to break through the rotation.
“Inexperience on the mound will be an issue, along with some new faces in the outfield,” Johnson explained. “Our keys to success will be young guys throwing strikes, and the ability for our upperclassmen to produce at the plate.”
The lineup must produce early as the pitching staff gains its sea legs. First baseman Trey Karnes, designated hitter Hunter Beck, and third baseman Braden Lambert, all seniors, can all hit for average and power when needed. Junior catcher Zach Lass and sophomore shortstop Carter Trice return as does the versatile Logan Davis. Austin Buisset, Noah Smith and Jack Rice will have opportunities to break through in outfield play.
Atlee and Lee-Davis will need to treat every game as a playoff game. If Region 5B qualifies just the top eight of fifteen teams, as in basketball, they’ll be fighting the likes of state semifinalist Prince George, upstart Matoaca, and playoff perennials Glen Allen, Douglas Freeman, Deep Run, and Mills Godwin for, first, postseason play, and then, seeding.