Despite losing four all-league contributors from his 13-7 team last season, Hills?boro baseball coach Doug Dick is excited about the potential of this year?s squad.
Gone are Jordan Faul at second base and pitcher, Justus Hilliard at third base, Dylan Nelson at pitcher and Cody Delk at shortstop.
But the return of three players with all-league and all-state recognition, combined with an influx of young talent, has Dick smiling as he prepares for his sixth year as head coach with a 64-44 record.
Senior Micah Allen, junior Austin Cross and senior David Dick all earned a spot on the 2014 2-1A all-state second team: Allen in the outfield, Cross as a pitcher and Dick as a utility player.
For all their baseball talent, Coach Dick likes the intangibles he?s seeing from the three upper-classmen, plus senior teammates Jakob Hanschu and Caleb Bettles.
?Team chemistry is really awesome so far,? Dick said. ?They?re showing great leadership. Right now that?s what it takes with these younger guys.?
Pitching and catching
Because of the impact of pitching, Cross?s contributions will be key. As a sophomore, the lanky 6-foot-7 righthander went 3-1 with an earned-run average of 1.11 with 40 strikeouts in 251?3 innings.
?Cross obviously is a nice return,? Dick said.
Complementing the Trojan ace are several teammates with varying degrees of mound experience.
Sophomore Braden Vogt likely will find a starting role after pitching in relief last season.
?I think he is really developing,? Dick said.
Seniors Hanschu and Bettles will be called upon to pitch as well.
?Jakob has had some shoulder issues, but he is healing,? Dick said. ?I?m hoping by mid-season that he?ll be back throwing like he did last year.?
Bettles pitched in summer league and did a good job, Dick added.
Two sophomores, left-hander Ryan Stepanek and right-hander Ben Koop, are likely to see action on the hill, too. Koop didn?t pitch last season, but Coach Dick said Koop has shown potential during preseason.
Another underclassman, freshman Kaden Kleiner, could find a place in the starting rotation as the season progresses.
Although David Dick may throw some innings in relief if needed, the senior?s primary role will be to anchor the Trojan battery as the primary catcher. Sophomore Tyson Reimer will be his backup.
Last season, Dick batted .432 with 12 runs batted in.
Coach Dick?s infield lineup will fluctuate according to who?s pitching. Cross, a second-team all-league pick at first base last season, provides a big target to throw to and has a strong glove. At the plate he batted .451 with a team-high six doubles.
?Cross could also play a little shortstop, but not in a doubleheader where he?s pitching,? Dick said. ?He looks really good at shortstop, to be honest.?
Also working at first base are freshman Jacob Funk and Stepanek.
Leading candidates at second base are Koop and Reimer, with Vogt playing shortstop when he?s not on the mound. Vogt batted .178 his freshman year.
The third-base position is still up in the air, according to Dick, but Bettles and Stepanek are strong candidates.
?I don?t normally like to put a lefty at third base, but he?s very tenacious,? Dick said about Stepanek. ?He?s good. He gets in front of the balls and knocks them down. If he turns out to be the best fit, we?ll do it.?
If not playing third, Bettles is the likely designated hitter as the season gets under way.
Allen and Hanschu have locked down two of three outfield positions, barring lineup situations that would call them elsewhere. Allen would step in at left field while Hanschu would patrol center field.
?Ideally, if I can still have Micah out there, that?s what I?d like,? Dick said.
Allen led the Trojans in hits (25), batting average (.472) and runs scored (23). Hanschu batted .223 in 43 at-bats. Both have strong, accurate arms.
?Teams look at (Han?schu) throwing from the outfield in pre-game?that?s a nice thing to show the opposing coach,? Dick said. ?On a base hit to the outfield, you probably don?t want to take that extra base.?
The right-field spot is still a question mark, according to Dick.
?I have several kids working there,? he said. ?I?d say right now it?s between Ben Koop and maybe Kaden Kleiner.?
Dick sees several potential challengers for the Central Kansas League title this season. Lyons won the title last year with Hillsboro and Kingman tying for second place. Larned and Hoisington will compete in the CKL for the first time.
?Both of those programs have been very solid programs,? Dick said.
As for his own team: ?The thing I look at is, if we can get through our league play at .500, I?ll feel really good, given the competition we play against. It just prepares our kids for post-season. I think our league is one of the toughest in the state in 3A and 4A.?
The Trojans will open play Thursday when they travel to Lindsborg for a doubleheader against Smoky Valley. Hillsboro?s first home game will be April 7 when Hoisington comes to Memorial Field for a pair of games.