With eight returning letter-winners from a team that went 18-8 and placed third in the Class 3A state tournament, Hillsboro baseball coach Doug Dick knows this year’s team has potential for significant success.
How much success, the second-year head coach isn’t prepared to say just yet. But with the Trojans making it to state the previous two seasons, Dick knows expectations are hopeful for a third straight trip to Manhattan.
“Anytime you’re returning some key players, your expectations are higher that you’re going to have a good season,” he said. “Obviously, we’ve had some success the past couple of years. Hopefully, we can keep that kind of thing going.”
Part of Dick’s challenge will be replacing four key seniors from last season: Devin Funk (.339 batting, 20 runs batted in), Jacob Fish (.398, 20 RBIs), Tyler Ediger (.474, 31 RBIs) and Jacob Edwards (.425, 12 RBIs at the plate and a 6-2 record, 1.32 earned run average and 95 strikeouts as a pitcher).
“Anytime you have to replace four starters out of nine, even though you’re returning some kids, you’re still looking at filling some holes,” Dick said. “This is just one of those seasons where we’ll have to wait to see how good we’re going to be.”
Dick’s returning letter-winners are a good place to start. The catcher’s position is solid with senior Aaron Bina (.460, 31 RBIs), a first-team all-league pick in the Mid-Central Activities Association in 2010, ready for his fourth year as a varsity contributor.
“He’s a key player to have back,” Dick said.
Senior Ben Gardner (.419, 26 RBIs) will return at third base, where he received honorable mention all-league. He possibly will pitch in a relief role.
“Gardner could be a good relief pitcher for me,” Dick said. “Last year, I don’t think he felt comfortable trying to work into a starting role, and I don’t think I would put that on him.”
Dylan Delk (.235, eight RBIs), another senior, played outfield and developed into the Trojans’ No. 2 starter (5-4, 4.23 ERA in 48 innings).
“Delk is probably my best pitcher overall coming back,” Dick said. “Delk’s throwing harder this year—he’s bigger and stronger. He’s throwing real good right now.”
Another experienced pitching prospect is sophomore letter-winner Kale Arnold (4-1, 4.88 ERA in 282?3 innings).
“Arnold is bigger and stronger, too, and his pitches are looking good early on,” Dick said. “He pitched quite a bit last year and had some success for us. Hopefully, he’ll be able to fill a role pitching, which I need.”
Dick is looking at junior Luke Moore (.266, 11 RBIs) as a third starting pitcher. He will play some in the outfield and may step in occasionally behind the plate to spell Bina. Moore (1-0) pitched only five innings last season.
Matt Martin was a defensive specialist last year as a junior at second base.
“Hopefully, he can fill a spot in the lineup somewhere because he didn’t bat much last year,” Dick said. “He looks better at the plate this year and he’s fast. If I can get him on base, he’s going to be one of those kids who can get around the bases.”
Derek Kelsey (.394, 16 RBIs) saw a lot of time at first base as last season progressed, and likely will see a lot of time there again this season, as well as some spot duty in the outfield.
Sophomore Lucas Sinclair will get more playing time this year, too, according to Dick.
“Lucas played off and on a little bit last year—mostly as utility player and ran bases. He’s bigger and stronger. I’m looking at him right now to fill in at shortstop. He’s looking pretty good there.
“A player who plays that role has to like the leadership and responsibility that comes with it,” Dick added. “I’m hoping Sinclair will fit that role. I know he’s young, but we’ve had other young kids there and they’ve done a good job.”
Also returning to the program to step into the gaps are senior Cory Abbott in the outfield, junior Aaron Wintermote, as outfielder and pitcher, and sophomores Nathan Unruh at third and Dylan Jirak in the outfield.
Newcomers include junior David Nelson, sophomore Kyle Ogle, and freshmen Jordan Faul, Cody Delk and Chase Meisinger.
Keys to success
Dick said this year’s team, like last year’s, may need some time to jell.
“Last year we started pretty slow,” he said. “We were 5-6 on the year and were kind of wondering how good we would be, and thinking we would be better. Then we started pulling things together on offense.
“So, hopefully, we can do the same thing this year. I think we have potential at the plate. Obviously, anybody can have slumps during the season, but I think we have a good nucleus of hitters coming back.”
Dick will be replacing almost his entire outfield from a year ago, and is still looking for a fourth starting pitcher. He’s also looking for his seniors to fill the leadership void on the team.
“They’ve shown some early on, but I’d like to see more,” he said. “I’d like to see more of a work ethic and an attitude of taking it seriously.
“Obviously, you want sports to be fun, but there’s a time to work hard and be serious about what it takes.
“If those seniors start demonstrating those qualities, we’ll be successful,” Dick added. “If I have to look to younger kids to be the leaders, that could happen, too. But you do or die by your upperclassmen if you want to go further than having a better than .500 season.”
Dick said it’s hard to know how his team will fare in the new Central Kansas League.
“I know there are some awfully good pitchers back who we’ll face this year—which is going to help us by the time we get around to post-season,” he said.
“I look at our schedule and I don’t see anybody that I can say, hey, we’re just going to go in and sweep them. We’re going to have to show up every doubleheader.
“If we could go into the post-season like we were last year—I think we were 13-7—I’d probably feel pretty good. That would be a pretty good goal.
“For that to happen, our pitchers are going to have to throw strikes, we’re going to have to have a good strike-to-ball ratio, and we’re going to have to come up with some offense.
“Hopefully, the guys will come around at the plate and we can have some success there.”
Hillsboro was scheduled to open its season March 29 with a doubleheader at Little River. Their first home engagement will be Friday against Nickerson at Memorial Field.