ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
With a new coach and only one player returning with significant varsity experience, the Hillsboro baseball program in 2004 is about as close as it can be starting over.
Dustin McEwen steps in as head coach following the resignation of Phil Oelke last spring. McEwen, the Trojans’ head football coach the past eight seasons, was an Oelke’s assistant for all five seasons.
“It’s never been necessarily a lifetime dream for me to be a head baseball coach,” McEwen said about his ascent to the top job. “It got to the point where we didn’t have anybody who was necessarily looking for the position for quite a while.”
McEwen said he realized his experience as Oelke’s assistant gave him some insight into administering a successful program, familiarity with the other coaches in the league, and a connection with the athletes.
“I kind of felt like maybe it was right for somebody in the school district to go ahead and take the head job.”
McEwen said he doesn’t consider himself a baseball expert.
“I’m having to learn a lot more about the game than I did in the past,” he said. “Phil had so much experience with seeing ball games and being involved with the game. He probably in one year of his life has seen more ball games than I have in my entire life.”
McEwen said knowing he’d have the services of a baseball-savvy assistant in Jess Tracy, made it easier for him to accept the position. Tracy, who is finishing up his degree at Tabor College, has played the game much of his life, including with the Bluejays.
“He’s probably going to take on a different role than a lot of assistants will because he probably used to play 100 games a year when he was in high school and continued on in college,” McEwen said. “He’s seen more ball games. You may see an assistant coach on the third-base line making the calls because he’s seen more of it.”
McEwen and Tracy will have their work cut out for them.
The Trojans graduated about 96 percent of their offensive production and almost all of their pitching from a 2003 team that went 16-7 on the field and qualified for the Class 3A state tournament.
The lone returner with significant varsity experience is senior Jared Fish, who batted .151 (eight singles in 53 at-bats) with eight runs batted in. He also threw the only inning pitched by a non-senior last year.
The other seven returners who appeared on the varsity roster in 2003-Tyler Goldsby, Michael Bookless, Chad Hughbanks, Adam Scheele, Justin Moore and Brandon Moss-combined for two hits in only 11 at bats.
Obviously, varsity inexperience will be the Trojans’ primary challenge early in the season. But McEwen said he doesn’t expect his team to roll over for anybody.
“You want to convey to the players and to yourself that you are going to come out and be competitive even though the experience factor is almost a complete start-over of people who have actually played in a varsity game,” he said.
“I think we’ve got some talented kids,” he added. “It may take them awhile for them to come into their own, though.”
Interviewed one week before Friday’s opener at Marion, McEwen said his lineup was still a work in progress.
“Last year, with the seniors we had, it was like, ‘Here are the starters, and here are some kids who are going to play JV.’ This year, it’s kind of like it’s open for a lot of kids to show up and make some noise.”
Fish and Hughbanks, only a sophomore, may be the noisiest of all.
“Fish is going to be in the outfield for us. He has played second (base) some, but in the outfield he’s really solid as far as getting under balls and he does a good job of seeing the ball off the bat.
“Hughbanks is looking to be our shortstop. He’s got a good arm and is pretty solid fielder. He’ll be somewhere high in the batting order. He has some experience hitting and has played probably more during summers. Having his older brother, Shawn, from last year, he’s probably played a little more than some.”
Moore is the leading candidate at third base.
“He’s got a good arm throwing over to first and, also, when you play third base, you don’t have a lot of reaction time over there. A lot of time it’s coming at you pretty hard, and he’s got a good glove as far as reading things off the bat.”
Second base is still up for grabs between three freshmen: Aaron Stepanek, Troy Frick and Jesse Boucher, McEwen said.
Moss is the leading candidate at first base, although others are contending, McEwen said.
The catching responsibility will fall either to Goldsby, a junior, or Lucas Hamm, a freshman.
“Goldsby probably has the edge right now just because he has caught more,” McEwen said. “There’s two years of age difference there, and (Hamm) has some time to develop still. He’s got the physical presence (at 6-2, 190 pounds) you might want behind the plate.
“If Goldsby ends up being that guy behind the plate for us pretty much full time, then Hamm’s going to have look at moving into the outfield and see if he can’t secure a position there.”
If Hamm heads that direction, he’ll have to wrestle playing time from Bookless and Scheele. Bookless played some second base last year, but moved into the outfield toward the end of last year.
“The thing that’s great about having him in the outfield is that he’s got a real strong arm,” McEwen said about the senior. “He can get that ball in quick from just about anywhere.”
McEwen is less concerned about inexperience in the field than he is about the huge void created on the pitching mound.
“We don’t know for sure what’s going to happen in the pitching department,” he said. “Last year, you knew you had these pitchers, and they had pitched for a couple of years. This year we’ll see the pitching duties being held down by committee.
“Fish is going to try it on the hill again. Then we’ve got Toal, who I think can come in and throw some strikes. He’s pretty good around the plate.
“We’ve got a lefty in Scheele. Moss has had some experience in JV games throwing the ball, and he’ll have some chances there.”
Moore, Hughbanks and Goldsby may get a crack at throwing, too.
“We just have a bunch of kids who could help us,” McEwen said. “I think at the beginning of the season, there’s going to be a lot of kids throwing.”
When he puts the pieces of his puzzle together, McEwen sees a positive outcome.
“I think they expect to be competitive,” he said of his players. “I think the unknown is still the pitching.
“I think we’re coming in with some kids who can hit the ball off a lot of the pitchers we’ll see. When we do get on the base baths, I think we’re going to have to be very aggressive. We’ll kind of portray that idea that we’ve got nothing to lose. “
McEwen sees the favorites on the Mid Central Activities Association being traditional powers Nickerson, Lyons and Wichita Collegiate. Newcomer Marion could be in the mix as well.
He said he and his team haven’t had a lot of time to talk about goals for the season.
“We’ve just been talking about how to hit a ball, how to field a ball, how to catch a ball, how we’re going to do cuts, how we’re communicating,” he said.
“We’re a week away and I’m not sure we know our signs yet-and that could be me included.
“We’re going to have to see some successes or some failures to say, hey, this is what we have to change and this is what we are able to accomplish.”
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF