Coach Doug Dick’s recipe for baseball success at Hillsboro this spring starts with a small but solid nucleus of experienced upperclassmen.
To that, he’ll add a healthy dose of moderately seasoned sophomores, then sprinkle in a couple of spicy first-year prospects.
By the end of the regular season, Dick hopes to savor a state-bound team following a less than satisfying 8-13 season a year ago.
“For whatever reason, we just didn’t get it all put together,” Dick said of 2012. “Obviously, when you’re used to going to state—three years in a row—and you end up 8-13, that’s not where you hope to finish.”
At the top
The critical ingredient will be Dick’s upperclassmen, which include seniors Lucas Sinclair, Kale Arnold and Nathan Unruh, and junior Jordan Faul.
In that foursome are two of the top hitters from a year ago (Faul, a team-high .383 with 23 hits; and Unruh, .317 with a team-high 18 runs batted in), the team’s best pitcher (Arnold, 3-4 record with a 1.70 earned-run average in 491⁄3 innings) and its starting catcher (Sinclair, .276, 16 hits, nine RBI).
“That’s a good nucleus of guys there,” Dick said. “With some good, positive leadership from those guys, we’ll be good.”
Arnold, a second-team all-league selection in 2012, will be the ace of Dick’s pitching staff. He’ll will play first base when not on the mound.
Sinclair will anchor the infield again at catcher and may pitch occasionally.
With junior Cody Delk out for the season following surgery on his throwing shoulder, Faul will likely shift from second base to Delk’s spot at shortstop, according to Dick.
Faul suffered a back fracture during football season, but appears to be 100 percent, according to his coach.
“He’ll definitely see middle infield,” Dick said. “Hopefully, he’ll see some time on the mound, too. Last summer he looked good in Legion ball.”
Unruh, who hit the team’s only home run last season, will return at third base.
“He did real well for us last year,” Dick said.
Of the six sophomores on Dick’s 13-man roster, three return as letter-winners.
Jakob Hanschu (.250 in 28 at-bats) mostly was a designated hitter last year, but is a strong candidate for a starting spot in center field this season.
“He’ll also be seeing time on the mound and possibly working at the catcher spot some,” Dick said. “If I have to use him in the infield, it will probably be at shortstop. He’s had some experience there.”
Micah Allen (.241 in 29 at-bats) started several games in right field last season.
“He didn’t have a lot of at-bats, but last summer he started coming around as a hitter, so I’m hoping he’ll be able to produce at the plate,” Dick said. “He’ll probably see either left or right field.”
David Dick (.214 in 28 at-bats) likely will step in at second base if Faul plays shortstop.
“He’ll also practice at catching, and we’ll see how he progresses,” coach Dick said. “Between David and Jakob, one of those two will probably see some time behind the plate.”
Also vying for playing time are classmates Josh Funk, Caleb Bettles and Jonah Liles. Funk and Liles most likely would see time in the outfield while Bettles may spell Unruh at third.
Dick welcomes three first-year players this spring, but on either end of the age spectrum.
Josh Davidson moved into the district as a senior this fall. He was an impact player in football and contributed in basketball.
Dick is hoping the 6-foot-4, 255-pounder will add some wallop to the Trojan lineup. Defensively, Davidson may see time on the mound, in the outfield and at first base.
“I don’t know much about him, except that he’s a big, strong kid,” he said.
The other two newcomers, Austin Cross and Dylan Nelson, are freshmen. They are likely to make their biggest impact as pitchers.
At a lanky 6-4, Cross qualified for state wrestling this winter and appears to be a strong pitching candidate this spring.
“He throws well,” Dick said. “If he stays healthy, he’ll definitely be one of my starters. He’ll probably see time in the outfield and at first base, switching off with Kale Arnold. He could step in at shortstop if Jordan goes to the mound.”
Nelson has played for Dick in summer ball.
“He’s a good-looking lefty pitcher—he has a lot of movement on the ball,” Dick said. “He’ll probably play some outfield for me and maybe a little first base. He’s a good contact hitter.”
Strengths and challenges
With Arnold returning and Cross looking good in the preseason, Dick sees pitching as one of his team’s strengths.
“I think we’ll be surprisingly solid at pitching. Whether we’ll have four starters, I’m not sure,” he said, adding that Hanschu, Faul and Davidson are leading candidates for starting roles.
Dick also likes his team’s baseball savvy.
“We’ve got a bunch of baseball-smart kids,” he said. “I think our baseball I.Q. will be very good. That will be a strength.”
Dick also cited the return of Aaron Stepanek as assistant coach as a strength.
“It’s an asset having the same coach for another year,” Dick said. “He knows me better and I know him better. I’m excited that we get to coach together again.”
As for challenges, Dick said team speed may top the list.
“Some of these sophomores have a little bit of speed, but we’ve got some bigger kids,” he said. “We’ll be sneaky fast. I just don’t have a kid that I know, when he gets on first, that I can just give him the steal sign and he’s on his own.”
The effect of retooling his lineup, including the entire outfield, with underclassmen is an unknown.
“I have a lot of confidence in them, but without the game experience at the varsity level, basically I’m throwing three totally new (outfield) starters out there,” he said.
“We’ve got a lot of skills to keep improving,” Dick added. “My goal is to keep improving through the season. Whatever mistakes we make early on, hopefully we can get those corrected.
“What I’m expecting out of the team as a whole is that our batting average will be better than last year (.252), and our base running should be improved.”
Dick believes his team can return the program to its winning ways, but he knows the Central Kansas League will provide few easy victories.
Class 3A Halstead, Lyons, Haven and Kingman perennially field strong teams, while Smoky Valley and Nickerson are strong 4A schools and Pratt was a 4A state qualifier in 2012.
“We have one of the most competitive leagues out there,” Dick said. “There’s really no team where you’re going into the game thinking we’re going to sweep them if we just show up.
“We’re going to have to play good baseball. Last year we played good baseball and still lost a number of games. We’re actually going to have to play very good baseball to beat some of the teams in our league.
“If we can finish .500 or better in our league, I’ll be pleased.”
Dick is hoping the Trojans can secure some doubleheader sweeps from their non-league schedule.
“Realistically, our goal is to be a high seed at regional, and to do that you have to have a decent record at the end of the season.”
Hillsboro is scheduled to open its season Thursday with a doubleheader at Little River.
Hillsboro’s home opener will be April 2 against Nickerson.