ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The Hillsboro High School baseball program coach Phil Oelke returns to after a two-year absence is at a far different place than the one he guided through its first five years.
During his initial run, Oelke’s teams won better than 72 percent (83-31) of their games, never had a losing season and twice made it to state.
In the two years he was gone, the Trojans struggled through consecutive three-win seasons, including a 3-18 mark last year.
Oelke would be the first to say the downturn was not so much tied to his departure as to the loss of a large and talented senior class in 2003 that left the cupboard of experienced players all but bare.
Oelke said he realizes the rebuilding effort begun by succeeding coaches Dustin McEwen and Tyler Marsh the past two seasons likely will continue with his return to the helm.
Despite the challenges, including the many hours of behind-the-scenes paperwork and field maintenance, Oelke said it’s good to be back.
“It’s been a lot of fun to be around the guys again,” he said. “It’s pretty special just to start those relationships up again.”
He’s buoyed by the contributions from assistant coach Doug Dick, who came into the Hillsboro system from Marion this year with a ton of coaching experience and a long baseball background.
“Coach Dick’s been has been an awesome addition,” Oelke said. “He’s pretty knowledgeable and gets along with kids well. He understands what makes them click and how to motivate.”
Another “welcome back” gift have been the improvements made to Memorial Field, including a permanent fence that brings the field closer to regulation dimensions, enclosed dugouts, the addition of a broadcast boost and improvements to the grounds.
“The field’s looking good-that’s exciting,” said Oelke, who is hoping the improvements will make baseball a more attractive alternative for young athletes.
“We have a lot of kids who play baseball through the early years, but we seem to lose a lot of them when they reach high school,” he said. “They have a lot of alternatives to choose from.”
This year is a case in point. The team lost only one senior to graduation, but five other players who were eligible to return chose not to-and for a variety of reasons.
“We’re not an incredibly young team grade-level wise, but experience-wise we are,” Oelke said.
Five players who return with significant experience from last year will form the foundation of this year’s team.
Heading the list is senior Chad Hughbanks, who was a first-team all-league pick at second base last season. He led the team in batting (.479), runs scored (20) and runs batted in (13). Oelke said Hughbanks will anchor the defense at shortstop this season.
The four other veterans are senior Adam Scheele, who batted .466 as a sophomore but played only a partial season a year ago, juniors Aaron Stepanek and Travis Riesen and sophomore Dustin Strunk.
All five found themselves filling variety of positions last season-including pitching-and may do more of the same this year. That is certainly true for the other players who are vying for playing time.
“We have guys working positions where they’ve never played before; we’re trying to find people to fill spots,” Oelke said.
Except for Hughbanks at shortstop and Stepanek settling in at second base, the competition for positions is wide open.
Oelke feels best about the outfield, where veterans Jesse Boucher (.391) and Lucas Hamm (.308), both juniors, and Stepanek (.200) bring significant experience.
Also competing for outfield time are junior Daniel Berg and Neal Ollenburger, a senior who returns to baseball after a three-year absence from the sport.
“We have several guys who can actually go out there and play that position for us,” Oelke said.
Senior Justin Moore (.270) may spend some time in the outfield, too, but he’ll be filling a lot of gaps this season.
“He’s definitely a utility player,” said Oelke, who mentioned first and third base as other options for Moore’s talents.
Troy Frick (.273) is the leading candidate for third base so far, but could share some time at first base with Alex Nuss (.111) and Moore.
Behind the plate, Oelke is looking at four players to fill the void created by the graduation of all-league honorable-mention pick Tyler Goldsby: Riesen (.304), freshman Daniel Jost and possibly Hughbanks and Stepanek-depending who is pitching at the time.
Which surfaces Hillsboro’s biggest weakness-pitching. The top four throwers return from a year ago, but all struggled: Hughbanks was 1-4 with an earned-run average of 10.00; Frick was 1-3 and 8.46, Stepanek 0-1 and 7.00 while Riesen did not get a decision and had a team-best 5.25 ERA.
Also working at pitching are Scheele, Boucher, Strunk, Jost, Gavin Serene, Moore and Berg.
“Pitching will be our weak spot-we know that,” Oelke said. “We’re obviously not going to be able to blow the ball by anybody. We’re going to need to keep kids off balance and spot pitch.
“Most of all, we just need to keep our heads on out there. We’re going to have to recognize that sometimes we’re going to walk a couple of kids, we may not get a call, or somebody might boot a ball. But we can’t fold.
“Looking back to last year, I think that happened sometimes.”
Oelke has tentatively identified his starters as Scheele, Hughbanks, Riesen, Frick and Jost. They’ll build endurance slowly.
“By midseason, if I can get a solid five inning out of those guys, I’d feel pretty good about things,” he said.
The operating principle for Oelke’s team this season will be flexibility.
“I’ve got a lot of guys who have just made a commitment to the team,” Oelke said. “We’ve talked about that a tremendous amount, that they may not be at a set position.
“Also, the guys need to realize the (designated hitter) rule is a very important rule and a very important aspect of the game,” he said. “We have some guys who will need to fill that role for us. We’ve always practiced the DH since I’ve been here. It’s available and we’re always going to put our nine best hitters on the field if we can.”
As usual, Hillsboro finds itself competing in a tough league that has produced at least one state title contender every year since the Trojans launched the sport in 1999.
Oelke said powerhouse Lyons, a state champ two years ago and runner-up last season in Class 3A, will be all but untouchable this season. His list of contenders include Wichita Collegiate and possibly Hoisington, Nickerson and Halstead.
“If I had to vote where we would end up, I just don’t know,” Oelke said. “If we play lights out, we could finish in the top half. To project us in the top three would be a stretch, just knowing what the other teams have coming back.”
Oelke said his goal is to get his team prepared for the post-season, noting that Hillsboro is in contention to host a regional tournament in May.
“I really don’t have a ton of expectations in terms of win-loss or where we’ll be in the league,” he said. “My goal, if we can, is to improve week in and week out. By the time regionals roll around, if we can at least make the finals and perhaps squeak out of it…. Nobody is going to argue that.”
Hillsboro opens play March 31 at home against Hoisington. The first game of the scheduled doubleheader will start at 4:30 p.m.