Trojan baseball primed for state tourney berth

This season represents one of those years for the Hillsboro High School baseball program when the opportunity for success is about as ripe as it will ever get.

With 10 letter-winners returning-including eight starters-from a team that went 17-6 a year ago and fell one run short of a state-tournament berth, coach Phil Oelke justifiably has high hopes.

“I really feel that if we can put six or seven runs on the board, we’re going to be hard to beat,” said Oelke, who has compiled a 65-24 record through the first four years of the program.

“But getting those six or seven can sometimes be pretty tricky.”

The Trojans won’t need much trickery, though. Those eight starters accounted 78 percent of the runs scored, 81 percent of the runs driven in and hit a cumulative .408 for a 2002 team that averaged 11.2 runs per contest.

Heading the list are a couple of seniors, James Bina and Dustin Jost, who are coming off career seasons last year.

Bina, a three-year all-league and two-year all-state selection at catcher, hit .469 as a junior with 32 runs batted in, 12 doubles and school-record seven home runs. He was second on the team with a slugging percentage of .877 and finished with a fielding percentage of .963.

Jost, an all-league and all-state selection as a utility player, finished 2002 with a .538 batting average and set school records in at-bats (93), hits (50), doubles (14), triples (5) and RBIs (35). He also led the team in slugging percentage (.892), on-base percentage (.579) and stolen bases (14).

In addition to his offensive strengths, Jost finished with a fielding percentage of .843 at shortstop and, as a pitcher, posted a won-loss record of 1-3.

The other six returning starters are not far behind those two in offensive potential:

n Kris Jones hit .406 with 11 RBIs, 28 hits, nine doubles and two home runs. The speedster scored 28 runs and stole eight bases. Jones will find his home in center field, where last year he finished with an .833 fielding percentage.

n Andy Brubacher batted .372 with 32 hits and 21 RBIs. He scored 27 runs and struck out only twice all season. Oelke said Brubacher, who has played infield and outfield, will probably start in left.

n Shawn Hughbanks batted .370 with 30 hits, 16 RBIs, 24 runs scored and one home run. The Trojan third baseman finished with a fielding percentage of .861.

n Graham Ratzlaff, the team’s primary designated hitter and a part-time outfielder last season, contributed a .364 batting average with 20 hits, including one home run. He scored 18 runs and drove in 16.

n Jerod Metcalf batted .333 with 26 hits, including one home run. He scored 21 runs and drove in 14 as the Trojans’ ace pitcher and part-time infielder.

n Steven Chisholm was a part-time starter in right field and did some pitching for the Trojans. In 28 at-bats, he batted .321 with nine hits, nine runs scored, 10 RBIs and two home runs.

In addition to those eight senior starters, the Trojans return two more letter winners: senior Ben Walker, who saw limited offensive duty with only three at-bats in 19 games, but whose defensive skills will make him this year’s starter at first base; and Jared Fish, a junior, who played in only eight games a year ago but is a strong contender at second base this year.

“He’s just stroking the ball right now, but I don’t know if he’s ever played infield,” Oelke said. “But he’s athletic enough he’ll be able to make that adjustment. He’s a smart kid.”

Oelke feels pretty confident about his team’s potential on offense.

“It seems like every year I’ve coached, offensively we’ve not been too bad off,” he said. “We’ve usually been able to either hit the ball real well, or on nights when we’re not hitting well, we were able to get some runs somehow-we forced teams to make mistakes or they just fortunately made mistakes for us.”

If Oelke has concerns it will be on the defensive side: pitching and fielding.

“As it is every year, that’s certainly my most critical position,” Oelke said said of his pitching prospects.

He has to feel pretty good, though, with the return of Metcalf, an all-league selection last season who compiled a spotless 10-0 won-loss record.

The senior threw a school-record 67 innings in a school-record 17 appearances. His 2.16 earned-run average also set a new standard of excellence at HHS. He struck out 43 and walked only 12.

“Jerod threw well basically all year,” Oelke said.

The question mark for the Trojans is depth. The team’s No. 2 starter last season, Layne Frick (4-2, 32.3 innings, 5.85 ERA) is a casualty of graduation.

Jost is the prime candidate to fill the void, but struggled with his control early last season and lost confidence. The senior did strike out 28 hitters in 23.3 innings; he also walked 25.

Filling in the gaps last season was Hughbanks, who was 2-1 in 14 innings with an ERA of 6.00.

Oelke is looking to those three pitchers to be the core again t his season. Chisholm, who experimented with pitching late last season and showed some potential, may see action as a closer and occasional starter.

Chisholm’s development, coming off a solid summer season, may be a key to the Trojans’ longevity in the post-season.

“He threw the other day for the first time,” Oelke said about the 6-4 Chisholm. “Mechanically, he looks pretty good. The thing Steven is going to have to do now is be more conscious about the situations he’s in. He’s going to have to listen to James (Bina). He can’t shake James off when we call a certain pitch.

“I’m certain Jerod is going to throw well for us,” Oelke added. “If I can get Jost to throw well and Hughbanks to come in and give us even some middle relief, and then be able to use Chisholm to close and maybe even start from time to time, I think we could be really good.”

The other area requiring improvement is the team’s defense. The Trojans committed 71 errors last season.

“If we’re wanting to see the season go very far at all, we’re going to have to really step up there,” Oelke said. “Last season we made a lot of what I call ‘rookie’ mistakes because we had so many new players in starting positions.

“A lot of them, even as juniors, were seeing playing time like a freshman would just because we hadn’t been able to get them experience (through a junior varsity program.)”

Oelke said without question the team to beat in the Mid-Central Activities Association will be Nickerson, the defending Class 4A champions who return almost their entire team.

“Nickerson is just going to be unbelievable,” he said. “They’re real solid. That will be our one battle we’re really going to have to push pretty hard to compete.”

Beyond the Panthers, he expects Wichita Collegiate to be solid even though they lost several key players to graduation.

“They’re going to be good year in and year out,” he said. “They have a top-notch coach, as far as I’m concerned. He’s got a great group of assistants. So they’re going to be solid no matter who they put on the field.”

Lyons, another contender a year ago, lost a couple of players to graduation and a couple of more moved to other schools.

“Lyons is certainly going to be a much different ball club than they were a year ago,” Oelke said.

A key non-league opponent the will be Marion, who earned their first trip to state last season. The Warriors will be the Trojans’ first opponent when the season opens in Hillsboro April 4, and they also will host the regional the Trojans are assigned to this year.

“They do concern me,” Oelke said. “I think Hillsboro has gotten into a situation where we have beaten Marion in several sports now for several years, and I think it’s easy to develop that attitude, ‘Well, it’s Marion.’ We have to be aware of the fact that (pitcher) Mitch Enos could beat us at any time.

“Coach (Sean) Spoonts is doing a super job with that program.”

The rest of the teams in the Marion region will be Bluestem (Leon), Osage City and Yates Center.

“There’s that old saying that whoever is playing the best ball at the end of the season is usually the team that wins it,” Oelke said. “That’s true. So often a team can get on a roll at the right time. I think it’s still going to come down to who’s pitching well.”

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