March has brought some beautiful weather to Frankfort, and along with it, an early start to the high school baseball season.
With Frankfort High kicking things off March 16 and Western Hills and Franklin County starting on the 19th, the air around town will soon be filled with the ping of aluminum bats.
Here’s what the three local coaches had to say about the impending season.
The road to the 41st District championship will be a little rockier this season for defending champion Western Hills.
After losing a group of eight seniors that included Marcus Howard and Logan Coffey – now playing at Indiana Southeast and Marietta College, respectively – along with Jordan Barrass and Eric Lewis, the Wolverines will be light on varsity experience.
WHHS coach Seth Knight, now in his third season at the helm, has a plan to offset his team’s youth.
“What we lack in experience at the varsity level we hope to overcompensate with hustle and hard work,” he said.
Helping to fill the void of those departed seniors are Dylan Manley and Ryan Barrass, two players Knight expects big things out of this season.
“They both played as sophomores and Ryan got to pitch in the region semifinal game against Henry Clay that year,” Knight said. “We’re looking at those two guys as our leaders because they have so much experience.
“We also need them to get those underclassmen coming into the varsity level up to speed pretty quickly,” he added.
Surrounding Manley and Barrass will be Jordan Barker at first base and on the hill, Kyle Fisher at third and pitcher, Seth Roush in the infield and Christian Kinder behind the plate.
Stepping in for the departed Lewis, Kinder will play a pivotal role in the WHHS defense.
“He’s got a huge role since a lot of our team will depend on how he does behind the plate,” Knight said. “We’re not looking for him to hit .450. We just need him to be a solid catcher – handle the pitchers and run the defense.”
The Wolverines open up play March 19 at home against Owen County and doesn’t face a district opponent until the 28th, when WHHS faces Woodford County in a rematch of last year’s district championship.
While Knight doesn’t worry too much about the regular season, he takes district games very seriously. Especially when WHHS faces WCHS, the team Knight calls “one of the best in the state when Clinton Hollon is on the mound.”
“We won’t take district games lightly because you have to get the right seed in our district,” he said. “You don’t want to face Hollon in game one of the district to see if you go to region.”
Looking around the 41st District, Knight also said Frankfort High will give his team all it can handle and that Franklin County is always a fun team to play.
“Franklin County always gets the competitive juices flowing,” he said. “They’re going to be strong.”
In Knight’s mind, the key for the Wolverines to repeat as distict champions will be to not get discouraged by failure.
“Baseball is a game of failure,” he said. “How you handle that failure determines who you become as a baseball player and what you become as a baseball team. They’re going to experience that this year, but that’s OK.”
How does a team regroup after losing its entire pitching staff?
If you’re the Franklin County Flyers, you bank on the fact that the rest of your team returns a year stronger and wiser.
You also bank on the fact that a stronger team means faster bats and a more productive offense.
“Past couple years we’ve played underclassmen,” FCHS coach Deron McDonald said. “You don’t notice the difference until a year later and the ball’s just jumping off their bats. Our kids are pounding the ball right now compared to last year.”
Leading FCHS at the plate and behind it will be Zach Arnold, who looks to have a stellar senior season before taking his talents to the University of Kentucky.
McDonald has no doubt his catcher is up to the task.
“Zach will be an excellent leader,” he said. “He can handle the bat and do anything you ask him to do with it. He’s also gotten a whole lot stronger.”
Behind Arnold is a whole armada of capable hitters including David Current, Conner Brown, Logan Woodside, Logan Crum and Eric Meyer. McDonald said he expects a monster season from Meyer.
“I look for Eric to catch fire this year offensively,” he said. “He played against some really tough competition over the summer.”
FCHS will also be speedy on the basepaths, with Quenton Brownlee, Rylan Rowe, Current, Brown and Meyer all running the bases well in their coach’s estimation.
A stronger team also means a stronger defense.
“Last year we had some guys where the arm strength just wasn’t there,” McDonald said. “Hitting the cutoff or throwing the ball across the diamond was a chore. Now it’s a nice, easy, smooth throw for them.”
But having the arm strength where it counts – the mound – will be the job of several Flyers.
McDonald said he’ll use a rotation consisting of Tyne Nickel, Brownlee, Brandon Smither, Current, Nick Cumpston, Meyer, Zack Durham and J.P. Roberts throughout the season.
“We got seven or eight guys that have looked good and worked hard between last year and this year to develop themselves,” McDonald said. “Hopefully it will pay off.”
Even if the pitching staff struggles, McDonald can rely on something else that comes with fielding a veteran team.
“Experience will hopefully come in on the mental part of the game,” he said. “Being in the right position and making the right decisions without hesitating.”
FCHS opens its season at Tates Creek March 19 and doesn’t face a district opponent until traveling to FHS on March 28.
The biggest test for the Flyers will come March 30 and 31, when FCHS hosts a “public versus private” tournament that will pit FCHS, Ryle and Tates Creek against Trinity, St. Xavier and Christian Academy of Louisville.
Win or lose, the tournament will be a good measuring stick for FCHS.
“We’ll find out how good we are at that point,” McDonald said.
The 2012 season might be the perfect storm for the Frankfort High Panthers.
With all of their starters returning, an experienced ace in senior A.J. Bramble and a jack-of-all-trades in sophomore Collin Harris capable of wreaking havoc on offense and defense, things are looking up for the Panthers.
Just like FCHS, coach Anthony Russell’s team will benefit from a wealth of experience.
“Jordan Dean, Dennis Martin and Zach Perry along with A.J. are all four-year players in our program, and not only are they solid players, but they give us the leadership we need to be successful,” Russell said.
Dean returns to the cleanup spot and will anchor the defense at first base while Dre’ Scott returns from an arm injury to hold down things at second base. With Harris playing shortstop, Russell said FHS will be tough up the middle.
The Panthers will also be tough behind the plate with three players – Cody Hall, McKinley Stonewall and Jared Stephens – competing for time at catcher.
On the mound, Russell expects big things from Bramble but also believes his top spot won’t go unchallenged.
“Last year as an eigth grader Jeffrey Quire finished the year as our ace on the mound and will give A.J. a run for his money as the number one guy again,” Russell said.
In addition to Bramble and Quire, expect to see Chance Hudnall on the bump for FHS.
“Chance has grown to about 6’4” and that extra leverage combined with time spent in the weight room and a full summer of pitching has added about 12 miles per hour to his fastball,” Russell said. “He’s throwing in the low 80s, spotting his pitches and has worked in a nice off-speed pitch that is nasty.”
With the talent and experience at his disposal, Russell said success will come if his team stays mentally focused.
“Kids this age want to make the top ten highlights on ESPN but I don’t think they are covering our games,” he said. “Baseball is a routine game. If you make every routine play you will routinely win.”
FHS will have its first chance to win March 16 against Gallatin County and opens district play against FCHS on the 28th.
Although Russell will freely admit that his team has struggled against district opponents, he believes FHS is capable of changing that dynamic this season.
“I know our guys are really sick of losing in district play and we won’t go down without a fight,” he said. “If we play up to our potential I think we should have something for them this year.
“Our goal, just like the other three teams, is to win this thing,” Russell added. “I believe. We will see if I can coach this team to believe.”