Spring Sports Preview: Baseball teams preparing to take the mound
From a defending state champion to a team whose roster was gutted by graduation, there are a myriad of storylines, questions, and hopes for success as the first pitch of the 2014 baseball season approaches.
For Hanover, 23-4 last season and defending Group AAA State Champions, the question is: How do you top a trip to the mountaintop? Of course, you try again.
But the Hawks must first replace some extremely talented players, beginning with shortstop Andrew Knizner, now leading the ACC in batting as a freshman with North Carolina State at .422. Also gone are final Capital District Players of the Year Keith Searles, Jeff Decker, Chris Gilliam and Brett Whitlow.
The strength for Hanover in their returnees begins on the hill with Derek Casey, the senior hurler who helped pitch the Hawks to the state title and has signed to play collegiately at the University of Virginia. Any rotation that starts with Casey will be very formidable. Add in Trevor Denton, Thomas Renfro and Anthony Zona, all seniors, and the Hawks return a load on the mound.
“This team’s strength should be pitching and defense,” said 11-year Hanover head coach Charlie Dragum. “We did not have a senior throw a pitch last season.”
It’s the bats where Dragum is looking for help, for new leaders. Josh Shepherd will anchor the infield and can get on base. Denton will add offensive punch playing the infield when not pitching. Cayman Richardson was a pleasant surprise last year as just a freshman as a situational player. His role should grow. Zona has infield experience as well.
Replacing Searles behind the plate will fall to either senior Ben Nachman or junior Brady Didlake. With such an experienced group of pitchers, that may be the key defensive change for the Hawks in 2014.
Taylor McDougal and Hayden Moore are the most experienced outfielders returning. Senior Jakob Pridemore, junior Elliott Sleed and sophomore Jacob Weis could see playing time.
Dragum’s top priority in the offseason was “working on playing as a unit and get physically stronger.”
“We can’t get anything done without everyone pulling in the same direction,” Dragum noted.
In the new 4A classification, in Conference 20, their new postseason foes including old Capital rival Glen Allen, but also the likes of Midlothian, Monacan, Dinwiddie and J.R. Tucker. No longer will the Hawks have to fight through county brethren Atlee and Lee-Davis just to make the region playoffs.
But this doesn’t make the road back to either region or state competition any easier, just different. But any team who can hand the ball to Derek Casey in a one-game, win-it-all situation has to be considered a favorite, at most any level.
Patrick Henry junior Chesdin Harrington returns to the Patriots’ lineup as a pitcher and shortstop, joined on the mound by senior Joe Buehren and sophomore William Strong.
Last year the Patriots,14-7, lost in Colonial District semifinals to Central Region champion Douglas Freeman. But the first season back for longtime head coach Sam Hart had to be considered very successful, taking a group with a .500 past and winning 14 of 21 games, including a regular season win at perennial power Douglas Freeman.
But six seniors have departed, including ace Kyle Palmer (Radford), and catcher Joe Bugas (VCU).
Returnees begin with junior Chesdin Harrington, who, when he isn’t on the mound, anchors the infield defense at shortstop.
Harrington is joined by fellow senior Joe Buehren in the rotation along with newcomer sophomore William Strong. Hart is looking to his mound triumvirate to help the Patriots get off to a good start. Buehren handles first base when not hurling. In between them, always at second base, is senior Tyler Starling.
Hart’s biggest concern?
“We’ve got to find someone to take care of the catching position,” Hart noted, not naming a starter to the Herald-Progress.
Riley Enright and A.J. Hart will return to give experience to the outfield.
With so many newcomers and some positions not settled as opening day approaches Tuesday at J.R. Tucker, Patriot fans can count on Harrington and Starling for consistency up the middle defensively, and for helping solidify the offense.
They’ll also be the fans’ anchor for familiarity until they learn the many new names on the Patriots roster. The other unknown is the new Patrick Henry postseason road: Conference 16. They won’t see Albemarle, Halifax, or Orange until they play for keeps in May. The regular season schedule is the same as past years, filled with county rivals and old Colonial District foes.
Last year, the Confederates, 11-9, lost in Capital District Semifinals to inter-county rival Atlee. Perhaps the most optimism in Hanover County is found off Mechanicsville Turnpike, as the Confederates return a boatload of experienced, and talented players, from a team that underachieved in 2013.
Two senior commits to Division I schools anchor the squad: shortstop Brett Langhorne (Tennessee) and center fielder Haiden Lamb (VCU), also known for his blazing speed on this year’s 5A State runner-up boys indoor track team.
Add to them Josh Lam at third base, who is committed to the University of Mary Washington and can also pitch, catcher Adam Boyle, outfielders/pitchers Cody Powers and Patrick Holler, pitcher Andrew Sergent and first baseman Kevin France and there’s reason to be excited at Lee-Davis.
Did we also mention sophomore pitcher Justin Sorokowski, nifty with the bat, and already committed to play collegiately in the ACC for Florida State? Yes, a sophomore. He could easily be the ace of the pitching staff.
The biggest replacement from graduation will be naming a new second baseman, where Sean King patrolled until graduating in June. Junior Adam Trice may fit that bill. Other promising newcomers include junior Brandon Fox and freshman Hunter Parker.
“We are senior-laden, we have experience, but it is our pitching staff that will need to really contribute,” longtime Lee-Davis head coach Kenny Lewis said.
Those who witnessed their scrimmage at J.R. Tucker Tuesday evening may find that hard to believe. The Confederates defeated the Tigers 20-1.
The fly in the Lee-Davis ointment is the new VHSL classification. They are now a part of Conference 11, absolutely loaded with talented teams, including defending Central Region champion Douglas Freeman, perennial powers Mills Godwin and Deep Run, and old Capital District foe Atlee.
Only two of those five teams can advance to 5A South Regional play out of Conference 11. It will be a war of attrition come tournament time later in May. But it looks like the Confederates have the horses, on the mound and at the plate, to survive and advance.
The 17-4 Raiders lost in the Central Region quarterfinals to champion Douglas Freeman. But the 3-2 loss to the Rebels ended not just a season, but an era at Atlee High School.
Names like Kenner Berry (Bridgewater), Luke Bolka (East Carolina), Dalton Ruch (University of Hartford), Evan Swecker and Steven Edmonds ended their Raider careers. Most of the starting lineup and top pitchers graduated.
So, in the new Conference 11, the most inexperienced team in the county will take the field under fiery head coach Barry Burton.
Experienced returnees are led by pitcher/infielder Cody Thompson, who can contribute on the hill, with the bat, and with the glove. He’ll likely be joined at the top of the rotation by fellow senior Collin Bazemore. Justin Bishop could develop into a key member of the pitching staff.
Replacing Roy Coates at catcher will either be junior David Baughan or promising sophomore Henry Moore.
Seniors competing for playing time include Michael Feild, Tyler Carter, Will Pritchett and Ryan Hooper, juniors Stephen Hurd, Brandon Crosby, Brett Ayer, Joseph Neagle and Andrew Simpson, and sophomores Andrew Foster and Johnny Friel.
That’s a lot of new names for Raiders fans to digest, and with that, likely some growing pains and a learning curve. They won’t have long. Opening week starts with a trip to Matoaca on Tuesday, followed by home games with Patrick Henry next Thursday and longtime region power Cosby a week from Friday.
New Conference 11 foe Deep Run comes calling Monday, March 24, meaning, by the end of the first week of the season, the Raiders will play four games and have a much better idea how much they miss the Class of 2013.