By Bryan Gaskins
Tribune sports editor
Western’s baseball team is buzzing with excitement, and for good reason.
The Panthers captured the Class 3A state championship last year and return a strong nucleus of players including all-state outfielder Marcus Pingleton and ace pitchers Ronnie Smith and Evan Warden. The Panthers are No. 1 in the 3A preseason poll.
“We’re enthused,” said Western skipper Ty Calloway, who is entering the 36th and final year of his Hall of Fame career. “We’ve been getting at it and the kids are excited. They’re hungry to get back [to state], that is the goal, but it’s a long process. Now that they’ve had a taste of it, they understand what it takes to get there.”
Excitement is high in the other Howard County camps as well. Kokomo is No. 6 in the Class 4A preseason poll, Taylor is No. 5 in the Class 2A poll, Northwestern returns a nice core of players from a 17-win team and Eastern is excited for Year 2 under coach Nick Sale.
Howard County is stocked with talent once again. Smith is an Alabama Birmingham recruit and Kokomo ace Parker Sanburn is an Arkansas recruit.
The season was scheduled to open this week, but Sunday night’s heavy snow has put everything on hold for now with spring break looming next week.
The following are looks at the five Howard County teams.
The Panthers posted a 25-9 record and won their first state championship last season.
They return their top three pitchers — seniors Smith (9-5 record, 2.34 ERA) and Cameron Kuntz (5-1, 1.69) and junior Warden (4-1, 1.59). They combined to pitch 174 2/3 of the team’s 237 innings.
“We went into last year with only 35 innings pitching coming back. We’re going into this year with a lot more depth,” Calloway said.
“We have three really solid pitchers. We just have to determine who our four, five and six are going to be. That is going to take some time.”
Seniors Austin Dukes and Nathan Kirk and sophomore Austin Weaver are possibilities for those roles.
Western will back its pitchers with a potentially solid defense.
“Defensively, I think we have an advantage also because last year, we had to replace six starters from the year before. This year, we have several kids with experience under their belts. We still have some spots to fill, but I think we have the kids to do it,” Calloway said.
Kirk and Kuntz will see time at first, senior Dakota LaMott is the second baseman, Warden will man shortstop after playing second last year and junior Drew Bellus returns to the hot corner. Junior Cameron Herr is the new catcher.
Infield depth comes from junior Tyler Goudy, Weaver and sophomore Austin Taylor. Also, sophomore Quintin Fields is the backup catcher.
Pingleton returns to center field and Devon Eaker returns to a corner spot. Both are seniors. Candidates for the other corner spot include three other seniors — Dukes, Kyle Mendenhall and Mitchell Shahan.
The Panthers return three of their top four hitters — Pingleton (.375), LaMott (.366) and Eaker (.326). Pingleton hit a county-best 10 homers, but Western had only 17 as a team. The Panthers had 44 stolen bases with Pingleton swiping a county-best 14.
“We weren’t a long-ball hitting team last year. We were a contact team and we did more bunting than at any point of my career because we had to. It was the best bunting team I’ve ever had,” Calloway said. “We can still do that, but we’re a little bigger and I think we’ll have a little more pop.
“All three phases of the game are ahead of where we were last year, there is no doubt about it.”
Calloway will call it a career following the season.
“Now I know how seniors feel — this is your last shot at it,” he said. “This is going to be a fun year. We’re going into it with the same expectations we have every year. We’re going to go at it and see what happens.”
The Purple Tigers return a nice core of players from a squad that went 17-8 last year.
“It’s always nice if you can build on what you did last year, but the big thing last year was nobody expected us to be that good. We had graduated nine seniors the year before and no one really expected us to go [anything better than] .500 so we sneaked up on a lot of people,” second-year Northwestern skipper Mike Brazel said. “I don’t expect us to sneak up on anybody this year. That makes it hard to go out and duplicate what you did the year before. Now you have to back it up.
“With us having eight returning varsity lettermen and six seniors who are all going to see a lot of playing time and seven juniors, we have some expectations. How good? We’d love to duplicate the 17 wins we had last year and hopefully do a little better than that. But we play a tough schedule.”
Brazel points to improved depth as a strength, but added the Tigers need to find a No. 1 pitcher and a catcher.
Senior Conner Milligan is the front-runner for the No. 1 spot. He posted a 3-0 record, three saves and a 2.36 ERA last year.
Junior Austin Bowley and senior Trevor Richmond (4-2 record, one save, 4.78 ERA) are penciled in as the early Nos. 2 and 3 pitchers. Senior James Herrington (2-1, 3.16 ERA) is a dependable reliever.
The candidates for catcher are junior Evan Matlock, junior Keagan Downey and sophomore Jake Vent.
Milligan, Richmond and junior Dylan Sheely are possibilities for first base, senior Kristian Simmons returns to second base, senior Trenton Brazel and junior Michael Plummer will see time at shortstop and Richmond and sophomore Austin Pyle will see time at third base. Junior Logan Macaluso is a utility infielder.
Senior Craten Brown returns to center field. Trenton Brazel, who played short last year, will see a lot of time in right field this year in a bid to strengthen the defense. Bowley and Sheeley will back up Brazel in right. Milligan, Downey and junior Erik Vas are candidates to play in left.
Trenton Brazel is the Tigers’ top returning hitter — he had a .380 average and a .522 on-base percentage last year. Milligan had a .345 average and five homers and Richmond had a .313 average and six taters.
The Titans are ranked No. 5 in the preseason Class 2A poll following a 16-12 record last year.
“I think a big reason that we got some notice in the rankings is because of the four seniors that have been such a huge part of the program the last two years,” Taylor skipper Brent Owens said. “Three of those seniors started on our 2011 final four team — Logan Barnes, Drew Hansen and Trevor Marler. And then the fourth senior, Nick Hoover, was dressing on that team. To have that kind of experience back is very, very valuable.
“A key for me this year is I can tell a huge difference in attitude. I feel like they’re a lot hungrier than they were last year,” Owens added. “The seniors this year want to get back to the 2011 success.”
The Titans return their infield intact — Marler at catcher, sophomore Tyler Gatlin at first, junior Austin Douglas at second, Barnes at short and Hansen at third. Freshman Cole Schroeder is the backup catcher.
The Titans will have an all-new outfield. Owens is looking at six players for the three spots — juniors Jordon Lazaro and Dayne Tomlinson, sophomores Tristan Kivett, Kyle Roe and Logan Williams and also Schroeder. Lazaro was penciled in as the center fielder, but is out 4-5 weeks after breaking his foot.
Barnes leads the offensive attack. He topped the county last year in batting average (.443) and on-base percentage (.525). Hansen batted .361, Marler batted .305 and Gatlin batted .293 and belted a team-high six homers.
“I feel like where we’re going to have to win is defensively and really just outscoring our opponents,” Owens said. “We don’t have that [ace pitcher] like we’ve had in the past with Matt Brankle and Cameron Clark.”
Taylor’s pitching staff is led by Hoover (2-2 record, one save, 4.20 ERA in 2012), Barnes (4-2, 2.31) and Hansen (2-1, 2.33) and also includes has Kivett, Schroeder, junior Mike Gammans and sophomore Korbin Collins.
The Wildkats are hungry to return to the happy side of .500 following a pair of losing seasons.
“We have 12 seniors and I think eight of them started as sophomores so it’s been a three-year process,” coach Tim Weeks said. “Last year was a little bit of a disappointment for us in the fact we were just [13-16]. What we struggled with was pitching. We saw what some of our weaknesses were and the kids have worked on it very hard. I think pitching is going to be a strength for us this year.”
Sanburn anchors the pitching staff. The Arkansas recruit went 3-4 with two saves and 4.95 ERA last year. Senior Jake McMain (1-4, two saves, 4.26 ERA) is the No. 2 pitcher and seniors Drew Sale (3-2, 5.01) and Chase Hatfield (3-1, 3.22) are candidates for the No. 3 spot.
Senior lefty Andrew Schten, senior Chris Beane and junior Adam Bartholomew also are in the pitching plans.
Senior Preston Emmons is the top catcher with juniors Austin Edwards and Mavric Collier offering depth. McMain is the first baseman. When McMain is pitching, Sanburn or sophomore Colan Ruch will play first. Senior Cody Shipley is the second baseman, senior Eli Grimes is the shortstop and Sale is the third baseman. Senior Dylan Orbaugh and junior Chance Johnson will back up at third.
The Kats will have an all-senior outfield with Jesse Broomfield in center, Hatfield in left and Drew Guge in right. Weeks noted junior Isaac Turner is making a strong push for time and junior Josh Revils and sophomore Bo Baker also could see time in the outfield.
“I am happy with our depth,” he said.
McMain is the top returning hitter. He ranked No. 2 in the county last year with a .429 batting average. Sale (.358), Grimes (.333) and Shipley (.324) also batted better than .300.
With a senior-heavy lineup, the Kats are poised for a big season.
“The sky’s the limit. We potentially could be pretty good, but they have to go out there and get it done. There will be a lot of people shooting for them,” Weeks said.
The Comets went 12-16 last year. Sale is eager to see how his second Eastern squad fares.
“We have eight returning starters this year and that’s helped out a lot,” Sale said. “We haven’t had to implement a lot of new things. The guys have picked up where we left off last year, which has been good. Everyone is on the same page.
“Our foundation is our pitching and defense,” he added. “We have Connor Young, Caleb Aaron and Kerrigan Forgrave back and they pitched probably 75 percent of our innings last season. And defensively, with eight returning starters, that is one of our strengths as well. We’re definitely a fast team and a lot of our guys can play a lot of different positions.”
Young had a 4-3 record and 4.25 ERA last year. Aaron was 3-3 with four saves and 4.32 ERA. And, Forgrave was 1-1 with one save. Young is a senior and Aaron and Forgrave are sophomores.
Defensively, senior Josh Keith will man first base, senior Ryan Lindsay is the second baseman, sophomore Cree Johnston and junior Braden Gibson will see time at shortstop and junior Austin Chase and Gibson will see time at the hot corner. Young is the top catcher and sophomore Alec Downing is a utility infielder.
Kerrigan Forgrave will play center field when he is not pitching. Senior Hayden Vint is the left fielder and Johnston and Downing are receiving looks in right.
Also in the mix for playing time are senior Austin Forgrave and junior Taylor Shallenberger.
The Comets have to replace their big stick from last year. Kile Nolder had a big senior year in 2012, batting .419 and bashing seven homers. He drove in a county-best 28 runs.
Kerrigan Forgrave (.351) and Vint (.308) are the top returning hitters.