Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

April 11, 2014

BASEBALL: Howard County preview

Panthers, Tigers embark on new coaching eras

By BRYAN GASKINS Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Northwestern and Western have enjoyed terrific runs of baseball success over the last 10 years. The Tigers were the Class 2A state runners-up in 2005 and regional champions in ‘07. The Panthers won the Class 3A state title in 2012 and took a regional title last year. The Panthers also won regional titles in ‘04 and ‘07.

Now, former standout players are moving into skipper roles for those squads.

Quentin Brown is the Panthers’ new coach. He was a key player on the 2004 regional title team — he hit a walk-off homer to give the Panthers the win in a one-game regional against Blackford. He belted 17 career homers and was a 2005 Indiana All-Star. He went on to play at IPFW.

Brown replaces longtime skipper Ty Calloway, who led the Panthers to 662 wins over his Hall of Fame career. Brown spent the last two seasons as an assistant coach.

“I think the guys are hungry to play baseball,” Brown said. “There are some differences in terms of philosophy, but at the end of the day it’s still baseball. I respect everything Coach Calloway did and I was a product of that. All I’m trying to do is continue the tradition and win ballgames.”

Kyle Beachy is the Tigers’ new coach. He started on Northwestern’s 2005 and ‘07 teams. He batted a county-best .462 as a senior in ‘07. He went on to play at Indiana Wesleyan.

“I’m extremely excited,” Beachy said. “It’s been a dream of mine since I stopped playing a couple years ago to be a varsity head coach. I know it’s not going to be easy. I believe I’m up to the challenge.”

Beachy noted he took a lot from his high school coach, Ryan Berryman.

“He was a big influence on me. In college, I had a couple coaches at Indiana Wesleyan who also were pretty big influences. But I’d say most of the stuff I try to apply to my team comes from my experience playing for Berryman.”

The following are previews of the five Howard County teams.

WESTERN

The Panthers went 23-6 last season, falling one win short of a return trip to the state finals. Brown has to replace all-state outfielder Marcus Pingleton and ace pitcher Ronnie Smith, but he has a strong core of returning players including Morehead State recruit Evan Warden.

“Everything has been positive,” Brown said. “The kids are buying in. It’s been an easier transition than I expected and I’m glad it’s been that way. The learning curve has been a lot quicker and it’s really worked out for us in the sense of jelling as a team.”

Warden will anchor the pitching staff. He had a 5-2 record and a 2.83 ERA last season. Sophomore Dalton Leighty, a move-in from Decatur Central, gives the Panthers a strong No. 2.

“You have to have two really good pitchers, I think, to make it deep in the tournament and give yourself a chance to take that title. I have the utmost confidence in those two,” Brown said. “Warden is a seasoned vet and a fierce competitor. Leighty is a sophomore with a lot of raw talent and a lot of raw ability. I think Evan has taken him under his wing and is showing him some things.”

Western has good pitching depth. Brown raved about the work senior A.J. Holt and junior Jake Stout have put in to prepare for the season and the skipper is eager to see them in game action. Juniors Austin Weaver (2-1, 0.97 ERA last season) and Austin Taylor (2-0, 2.33) also are in the mix.

Brown also has depth behind the plate — senior Cameron Herr, junior Quintin Fields and freshman Tyler Burthay are catchers. Herr started last season.

Around the infield, senior Drew Bellus is at first, Taylor is at second, Warden and Leighty are the shortstops and Weaver is at third. Bellus, Warden and Weaver are returning starters. Senior Tyler Goudy and sophomore Jacob Douglas offer infield depth.

In the outfield, junior Braxton Hunt is in center, senior Devon Eaker is in left and junior Kyler Vail and senior Ryan Alexander are candidates for right field. Eaker is entering his third season as a starter.

Brown likes his defense’s mix of returning starters and promising new starters.

Warden is the top returning hitter. He batted .351 with five doubles, one homer and 19 RBI last season. Herr had a .337 average with 13 RBI, Weaver batted .314, Bellus batted .286 with five doubles, one homer and a team-high 30 RBI and Eaker batted .284. Warden and Bellus earned all-Mid-Indiana Conference honors.

“I think we’re going to continue to hit,” Brown said. “I think they know that Western has an air about them of being good hitters. We just want to continue that tradition and do it in the right way.

“I know they love to hit, I love to hit. I’d definitely say hitting is one of our strengths.”

Eaker will man the leadoff spot with Taylor, Warden and Bellus filling the top half of the order. But Brown noted his confidence in his players gives him different options.

Western is the defending MIC champion.

Western faces a new postseason destination this year after the IHSAA’s new success factor bumped the Panthers up to Class 4A for the next two seasons. Western will play in the Sectional 7 with Kokomo, Lafayette Jeff, Harrison, McCutcheon, Logansport and Marion.

“We embrace this challenge,” Brown said. “I’ve heard some people who love the success rule and I’ve heard some people who absolutely hate it. I’m one who loves it. ... We choose to look at it in a positive sense. We accept that challenge, we want that challenge. The sectional is going to be tough. But it’s going to make the players better and our program better.”

Western opened with a victory over Lafayette Central Catholic last week. The Panthers return to action Tuesday at Tipton.

NORTHWESTERN

Beachy will look to put the Tigers back on track after they slipped to a 12-11 record last season.

“We’ve got eight seniors and we’re going to go as far as they carry us,” he said. “We have a few young guys who will get a lot of playing time, a couple freshmen and a couple sophomores. I’m looking for big growth from them, but it’s really going to lay on the shoulders of the seniors whether we can make some adjustments and win some ballgames.

“It’s going to depend on pitching. That’s our big question mark at the moment. That’s what we struggled with in our opener [a 15-6 loss to Southwood last week].”

Beachy points to hitting as a potential strength.

“I think we have a great group of hitters who can hit the ball for power, hit the ball for average, hit it to all fields,” he said. “The more we see some pitching, I think we’ll be able to make more adjustments and put up a lot of runs.”

The Tigers’ top returning hitters include seniors Logan Macaluso (.436, 20 RBI) and Keagan Downey (.412, team-high 12 extra-base hits, 15 RBI) and junior Austin Pyle (.360). Those three players likely will man the middle of the Tigers’ batting order.

Defensively, sophomore Tim Blankenberger and junior Jake Vent are catchers, Downey is the top first baseman, sophomore Quinlan Armstrong and freshman Shawn Smith are second basemen, Pyle and senior Evan Matlock are shortstops and Macaluso is the top third baseman. The top outfielders are seniors Billy Parslow and Erick Vas and freshman Trey Richmond.

Seniors Austin Bowley and Dylan Sheely and juniors Tom Yager, Drew Harris and Ryan Cavazos offer depth.

Beachy noted the Tigers’ defense looked good in the opener.

“We’ve got guys who can play different positions and I’m confident in all of those guys no matter where they are,” he said.

Macaluso is the team’s top returning pitcher. He had a 3-3 record, one save and a 3.46 ERA in 2013. Pyle, Matlock, Downey and Sheely also are in the pitching plans and Bowley is a leading bullpen option.

“Not a ton of varsity experience [in that group], but we’re hoping as the season goes on, they’ll gain experience, gain confidence and we’ll be looking good come sectional time,” Beachy said.

Northwestern (0-1) returns to action Wednesday at Eastern.

KOKOMO

The Wildkats are in a rebuilding mode after going with a senior-heavy lineup last season. They finished 13-11.

“The thing I like about this team so far is it’s a fun team to be around,” Kat coach Tim Weeks said. “We have great chemistry, the kids get along with each other, they’re fun to coach. They’re just a scrappy bunch. I don’t think we’re going to 10-run a lot of people, but I think we’re going to battle everybody we play.”

Weeks is looking to junior Adam Bartholomew to anchor the pitching staff. He had a 1-2 record and 1.79 ERA last season. Seniors Dustin Gamblin (one save), Mavric Collier (1-0, one save) and Isaac Turner also are starting candidates. Gamblin is a knuckleball pitcher.

Junior Colan Ruch, the team’s only lefty, could see time on the mound as spot starter. Seniors David Partida and Slater Young and sophomore Chase Pearce are bullpen options.

“The thing that is key for us is we have to pitch better,” Weeks said. “We haven’t had that dominant No. 1 in a couple years. If we can’t get that, we just need everybody to step up and throw strikes.”

Defensively, sophomore Cory Shrock and junior Devon Orbaugh are catchers, Ruch is the first baseman, junior Jared Dill is at second, junior S.A. Dunn is the shortstop and Pearce and sophomore Ben Tracy are third basemen. Turner, senior Josh Revils and junior Bo Baker are the top outfielders with junior Keyon Washington also in the mix.

Weeks liked how his defense looked in pre-spring break games against Fishers and Eastern. The Kats split those games.

“We’ve made some errors, especially in the Fishers games, but we’ve also made some big plays that have got us out of some jams,” he said. “We’re young in terms of experience at the varsity level and also in terms of age, but they’ve done a good job so far. I think defense could be one of our strong points.”

Offensively, Baker is penciled into the leadoff spot followed by Dill, Dunn, Ruch and Turner.

Weeks liked how his team looked at the plate in its pre-spring break games.

“I think we’ll hit the ball well,” he said.

Kokomo (1-1) visits Lafayette Jeff Tuesday for a matchup of Class 4A Sectional 7 teams. Weeks sees the North Central Conference and Sectional 7 races as up for grabs this year.

TAYLOR

Taylor skipper Brent Owens has to replace his top four hitters, including Class 2A all-state player Logan Barnes, from a 13-12 squad.

“I think that we have a lot of potential, but we have a lot of unknowns because we’re asking a lot of first-year players to step up,” Owens said. “I’ve known these kids since they were 7, 8, 9 years old so I know what the potential is and if they fulfill their potential, I think they have the possibility of being a good team.”

Owens has four returning starters — seniors Austin Douglas and Jordon Lazaro, junior Tyler Gatlin and sophomore Cole Schroeder. Gatlin was an all-Mid-Indiana Conference pick last season.

Schroeder will anchor the pitching staff. As a freshman, he had a 5-2 record with a 2.63 ERA. He fired a one-hitter against Harrison.

“We expect him when he’s not pitching to be our catcher. He is the general on the field, so to speak,” Owens said.

Freshman Noah Poe is the No. 2 pitcher. He tossed a two-hit shutout to lead Taylor past Frankton 10-0 in five innings last week in the Titans’ only pre-spring break game.

Lazaro and Douglas are the Nos. 3 and 4 pitchers. Sophomores Justin Moody and Jordan Maroney and junior Brandon Bassett are possibilities for the Nos. 5 and 6 spots.

Defensively, Schroeder is the main catcher with senior Ryke Langevin and freshman Caleb Murdock as backups. Gatlin is at first base, Poe and Lazaro will see time at second base, Douglas and Poe will see time at short and junior Nick Barnett and Moody are possibilities for the hot corner. Junior Tristan Kivett was in line to start at second base, but he is on the mend after suffering a broken leg on the first day of practice.

Lazaro anchors the outfield plans. Juniors Kyle Roe and Jonathan Maroney and sophomores Stone Deckard, Levi Hoyet and Darrian Stone also are in the mix.

Offensively, Roe and Douglas are candidates for top spots in the order with Schroeder, Gatlin and Lazaro filling the middle. Last season, Roe batted .364, Gatlin batted .329 with four homers, seven doubles and 21 RBI and Schroeder had a .316 average.

Owens is cautiously optimistic about his squad.

“Every year, I tell my players that I want to be positive, but I want to be realistic. I really do feel like we’re going to have a winning season. I feel like we could compete in the MIC and compete for a sectional title, but it’s going to come down to us performing on the field, not what I say.”

Taylor (1-0) hosts Manchester on Tuesday.

EASTERN

The Comets return a lot of players from a 12-14 squad.

“We have a lot of experience,” Eastern coach Nick Sale said. “We’re kind of junior and senior loaded. [Experience] is one of the things working for us right now. These guys have been in situations. It’s an exciting time for us.

“We lost to Alexandria 1-0 in extra innings last year in the sectional and they went on to win the sectional championship. We haven’t forgot about that game. These guys are hungry,” he added.

Sale points to pitching depth as a strength of the team. The Comets return junior lefty Caleb Aaron (4-5 record, 3.70 ERA, team-high 56 innings pitched) and senior Taylor Shallenberger (3-0, 3.91) and add promising junior Matt Simmerman, who is a move-in from Shelbyville.

Sale also has senior Braden Gibson (2-1), sophomore Jake Hartman and freshman Zach Robinson in his pitching plans.

Defensively, Simmerman and sophomore Blaine Dahl are catchers, junior Taylor Tattersall is the first baseman, junior Alec Downing is at second, Gibson is at shortstop and senior Austin Chase is at third. In the outfield, junior Cree Johnston is in center, junior Ty Catt is in left and junior Daniel Pugh and sophomore Tristen Moyers are candidates for right. Senior Will Porter offers outfield depth.

“Our pitching and defense have been strong the past two years. I’d like to think that will be the case again this year. Hopefully we can get the timely hits,” Sale said.

Downing and Catt likely will fill the top two spots in the batting order followed by Simmerman, Chase and Tattersall. Last season, Chase led the team in the Triple Crown categories (.411 average, three homers, 27 RBI).

In Eastern’s opener against Kokomo last week, Simmerman went 4 for 4 and Chase had three hits. Eastern had 16 hits.

“This is the most excited I’ve been about a team in a long time,” Sale said. “These guys are passionate about the game. I never have to get on the guys about working hard because they have that focus. They know what they what to accomplish. As a coach, it’s really exciting.”

Eastern (0-1) visits Oak Hill on Tuesday.