ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
After knocking on the door of their first state tournament appearance last spring, Hillsboro coach Phil Oelke and his Trojans want to knock that door down in 2001.
Only a few untimely errors kept last year’s team from moving on to state competition after an 18-4 season record and an MCAA title.
“I feel pretty confident that if we win our regional and make it into state, we’ll make a run at some teams,” said Oelke, who has been head coach since the program was inaugurated in 1999.
The Trojans lost only three seniors from last year’s team: Tyson Ratzlaff, a first-team All-MCAA and a second-team all-state pick, Kane Adams, All-MCAA honorable mention at first base, and Justin Friesen, a .429 hitter in limited action.
“Kane, in the long run, might be out biggest loss off of last year’s squad-not for his offensive output, but for his defensive ability,” Oelke said. “There’s a lot of things Kane did normally that these kids aren’t quite accustomed to.”
Heading the list of returnees is Grant Brubacher, senior shortstop, who was picked first-team all-state at his position by Class 3A coaches, but only honorable mention in the MCAA.
In addition to his .884 field percentage, Brubacher led his team in hitting (.552), hits (37), RBIs (29), home runs (5) and stolen bases (10).
The good news for everyone except Trojan opponents is that Brubacher is healthy this year after playing with an injured foot most of last season.
“I don’t think it made a big difference in his performance, but I see a difference this season in that he’s not apprehensive about doing certain things on the field,” Oelke said. “It never slowed him down last year, but you could sometimes see he was thinking a little bit before he’d make a move.”
Leading candidates to join Brubacher on the Trojan infield will be fellow senior Corey Thiessen, a .306 hitter at second base, and sophomore Shawn Hughbanks at third base, a .308 hitter as a freshman.
Sophomores Dustin Jost and Jerod Metcalf could see action at second base, too.
Filling the void at first base is Oelke’s biggest concern. His leading candidates are first-year player Ben Walker and junior Layne Frick, a .455 hitter in 22 at-bats last season. Sophomore Steven Chisholm may earn some playing time, too.
Anchoring the infield is sophomore catcher James Bina, a reliable defender and a .431 hitter last season as a freshman starter.
“He was honorable mention (MCAA) last year,” Oelke said. “His bat looks a lot better this year, so far.”
The Trojan outfield is set with seniors Jeremy Loewen (.411 16 RBIs), Dan Funk (.479, 21 RBIs), and Nathan Fish (.365, 12 RBIs). Waiting in the wings are sophomores Andy Brubacher, Kris Jones and Chisholm.
Fish is the No. 2 man on Oelke’s pitching staff, which returns almost complete from a year ago. Fish was 6-1 with a 6.81 ERA.
Oelke’s top starter is Frick, who was 5-0 with 5.03 ERA.
“Layne is throwing considerably harder than last season,” Oelke said.
His No. 3 and 4 starters are sophomores Jost and Metcalf, who were 3-2 and 4-1 last season as freshmen.
Filling out the staff will be Hughbanks,who was effective in relief last year, possibly Jones, and three freshmen: Kyle Jilka, Brandon Moss and Jared Fish.
“We’ll have plenty of pitchers,” Oelke said. “It’s just a matter of who will take charge out on the mound.”
He sees pitching as the biggest unknown this season. But he expects the Trojans to be strong offensively and play good defense.
“If we progress like we did last year, I still think we’ll be a solid offensive team,” Oelke said. “We’ve really been working a lot on fundamentals.
“If we can play solid defense at first base, I think we will be a better defensive team than we were last year,” he said. “I think our pitching will be better, just in the fact that we will be able to control our pitches a little bit better.”
Oelke feels team speed will be another strength.
“We’ve got some kids who can run around the base paths in a hurry if they’re given an opportunity,” he said.
Oelke is hopeful his team will move past regionals this season, but repeating as MCAA champions may be an even bigger accomplishment.
Among the challengers will be defending state champion Wichita Collegiate, who outscored their opponents 32-3 in the playoffs. The Spartans return a solid group of upperclassmen and have several talented young players.
Haven, Smoky Valley and Nickerson, all Class 4-A schools, return most of the players from squads that were competitive last season, too.
“This league, I tell you, it’s going to be a league to watch,” Oelke said.
As for team goals, Job One is the MCAA title.
“I told them to repeat as league champions should be an immediate priority for us,” Oelke said. “That in itself should be quite a mark, considering where our league is at right now.”
The Trojans open their season at home Friday against Haven. The doubleheader starts at 4:30 p.m. at Memorial Park.