Six seniors will form the core of Hillsboro’s 2007 baseball team. They, along with a mix of promising underclassmen will aim to improve on last seson’ 13-7 record. Pictured are (from left) Daniel Berg, Lucas Hamm, Troy Frick, Alex Nuss, Aaron Stepanek and Travis Riesen.
“Our approach to the game is pretty much what it was last year,” said Oelke, who is beginning his sixth year as head coach. He is joined by second-year assistant Doug Dick.
“Last year we really didn’t know what to expect,” Oelke added. “I thought if we’d win five games, I’d be happy. We ended up having a really good season.
“This year, obviously expectations are a little bit higher. We do have a little more experience and we have some some talent. But our league is tougher this year.”
The Trojans lost to graduation second-team all-league outfielder Justin Moore, a .357 hitter with 15 runs batted in, and honorable-mention infielder Chad Hughbanks, who hit .406 and drove in 14 runs.
But the Trojans return senior Travis Riesen (.311, 12 RBI), an honorable-mention selection at catcher and the team’s No. 1 pitcher (4-1, 2.96 earned-run average), and junior Daniel Jost (.366, 11 RBI), who received honorable mention as a utility player. Jost played on the infield and made 11 appearances on the mound (0-0, one save, 6.39 ERA).
Add to the mix four other senior starters, including the team’s top hitter in infielder-pitcher Troy Frick, who hit .455 and drove in 20 runs at the plate and was 4-2 with an ERA of 4.83 on the mound.
Also returning are infielders Aaron Stepanek (.344, 6 RBI), Alex Nuss (.268, 8 RBI), and Lucas Hamm (.259, 9 RBI).
The sixth senior is Daniel Berg, who made five pitching appearances with five at-bats.
Last season, the Trojan infield set a program record with a .929 fielding percentage, so Oelke sees infield defense as a team strength again this year.
“We’re pretty solid on the infield defense,” he said. “No matter who we put on the mound, I think we’re going to be OK there.
“Last year was kind of a unique year—it was the only season I’ve coached here at Hillsboro that we didn’t have to move our infield around much. We were able to stay consistent at second, basically at short, and third.”
At this point in the preseason, Oelke sees his Game 1 infield lineup as Riesen on the mound, Jost at catcher, Nuss at first, Frick at second, Stepanek at shortstop and Hamm at third.
“Everything will change, depending on who is pitching,” he said.
Meanwhile, the outfield lineup is more fluid. The primary candidates are Berg, juniors Mitchell Koop and Dustin Strunk, sophomore Isaac Leihy and freshman Jacob Edwards.
Leihy and Edwards are part of a promising pool of first-year players that also includes sophomore Robby McClelland and freshmen Tyler Ediger, Jacob Fish, Devon Funk, Devon Funk and Adam Suderman.
“We return quite a few guys, but we’re going to have some young kids who are going to be able to help us quite a bit,” Oelke said.
The mix of experience and youth should improve the team’s overall speed on the base paths.
“Team speed is a little better than it was a year ago, but it’s still not as good as it’s been in the past,” Oelke said. “But that’s going to be a strength for us.”
A third strength Oelke cited is team leadership.
“Leadership has been good so far,” he said. “We knew that was something we needed to have. A lot of guys are stepping up and are starting to do something for us in practice as well.
“It’s going to be very important for us to learn to jell this year, especially because of our freshmen (who will see varsity action),” he added.
On the flip side, Oelke is concerned about his team’s productivity on offense.
“We’re going to struggle a little bit,” he said.
Other question marks include the defense of a relatively inexperienced outfield, plus the critically important pitching staff.
“Pitching—it’s hard to say right now,” Oelke said. “We’ve got some guys who are struggling to hit spots right.”
Joining Riesen in a potential five-man starting rotation would be Frick, Jost, Edwards and Ediger.
“Stepanek also will throw for us, but I don’t want him to be a starter,” Oelke said. “I want to use him in middle relief and end-of-game kind of situations—40 pitches or less.”
Also expected to help in middle relief are Berg and sophomore Gavin Serene.
“Berg has picked up a little velocity,” Oelke said. “I think he’ll be able to contribute a bit more middle relief than he did a year ago.
“Gavin, considering he only weighs 100, isn’t going to blaze it by anybody, but he sure keeps kids off balance,” he added. “He’s effective for a good inning or inning and a half.”
Oelke added that Strunk and virtually any of his freshmen could see some time on the mound as well this season.
The Trojans open their season Friday, March 30, at Wichita Collegiate, then take on Nickerson in their home opener the following Tuesday.
“Collegiate potentially could be pretty good again—they return most of their pitching,” Oelke said.
“I’m picking Nickerson in the top two (in the league). They’ve got the talent and should win it, even though they’re still juniors. They’ve got some really talented kids.”
Also on his list of teams to watch are perennial contenders Smoky Valley and Hoisington and perhaps Lyons, who lost several seniors but also started two to four freshman last year.
“Last year, I felt like the league was down a little bit,” Oelke said. “I think it’s going to be better this year.”
Oelke said his team is itching to start playing games.
“A lot of the guys have been out since Feb. 26 (the first official day of practice),” he said. “This week you could start to see a shade of burnout. Three weeks of practice just gets old.”