Northwestern District teams have plenty of arm strength

There won't be a call to arms in the Northwestern District baseball race this season.

Everybody has some.

Nearly all of the top contenders in the district race return multiple pitchers in what is expected to be a scrap to the finish.

“Almost every team in our district has a couple of quality pitchers back,” Sherando coach Pepper Martin said. “I think it's going to be a very balanced district, I really do.”

Locally, Millbrook, the defending district tournament champion, has four experienced pitchers (Chandler Ballenger, Jalen Tyson, Caleb Benner and Haden Madagan) in its rotation.

Sherando has three returning starters, James Madison University commit Hunter Entsminger. Michael Usa and Jared Tinsman.

James Wood returns a pair of starters (Aden Payne and Jacob Bell) and Handley has its ace (Tommy Downey) back.

The rest of the district is stout, too.

Regular-season champ Fauquier brings back it's top two starters Lane Pearson and Carson McCusker, who were first and second team all-district performers respectively, last season. Kettle Run returns Joe Vogatsky, who has orally committed to JMU.

Area Northwestern District coaches agree — runs are going to come at a premium this year.

“I think it's going to come down to who executes,” Millbrook coach Brian Burke said. “I think you're going to see a lot of tight games. It's going to be the team that makes the fewest mistakes and is able to push across runs, execute hit-and-runs and bunts.”

“It's not going to be the games where you end up 9-8 or 10-9,” Handley coach Patrick Wingfield said. “The defense in this league is real good. There are going to be a lot of games where you're seeing 2-1 or 4-3, very close ballgames.”

Millbrook lost nine seniors from last season's squad, but return a slew of starters.

More importantly, the Pioneers get back Ballenger and Madagan, who weren't able to pitch as much as anticipated last season. They join Jalen Tyson and Caleb Benner, who ate up most of the innings last year.

Tyson (3-3) pitched well down the stretch. He tossed a three-hitter and lost a tough 1-0 decision to Woodgrove in the Region 4C semifinals. Benner (5-2) started was excellent in long relief.

Burke anticipates Ballenger will be his No. 1 starter, but expects much from each of the four seniors.

“We've got a lot of experience coming back,” he said. “We we don't have any guys who are flamethrowers who are going to throw the ball by anybody. They've got to be effective on both sides of the plate, being able to change speeds and those kinds of things in order to be effective. With having those four guys, we'll take our chances. We'll see how it plays out.”

The biggest holes in the lineup will come in the infield. Third baseman Alec Rudolph (a first team all-state player) and second baseman Bailey Collins have graduated.

Junior Michael Robertson, who spent last season on the JV squad, will take over at third.

“He's a big kid and swings a big stick,” Burke said. “We're going to have to get him to work on some things at the plate. He's one of these all or none type of guys. Once we get him driving the ball back up the middle and to use all fields, he's going to be very effective for us in the middle of the lineup somewhere just because he's capable of doubles and home runs. He's just got a lot of raw power.”

Senior Daniel Croyle, a role player last season, takes over at second.

“He's a kid that has a high baseball IQ, a team-first kind of kid,” Burke said. “… He comes with a wealth of experience and knowledge. If he can give us something offensively and plays well defensively, we shouldn't miss a beat with him.”

Sophomore Logan Hartigan, also a role player last season, takes on an expanded role as a starting center fielder and will bat first in a lineup that returns Ballenger (18 RBIs last season), Madagan (.339) and Tyson (.348, 20 RBIs).

“He's probably going to have to figure some things out as a leadoff hitter,” Burke said of Hartigan, who swings lefty. “… This is a kid that if he runs into a ball he's going to have some pop coming off the bat. He's maybe not your prototypical leadoff guy.”

Burke said another key bat in the lineup belongs to shortstop John Rosa.

“John has made a lot of personal strides in his hitting in the offseason,” Burke said. “He works extremely hard. I feel like John a lot of pressure on himself with transferring over from Handley last year. He tried perhaps to do too much as a hitter. …. John looks like a whole different baseball player from this time last year to what we're seeing now.”

Senior Cris Burger returns at catcher.

Sherando also is looking to rely on pitching this season.

Entsminger, a flamethrower, has bounced back from a knee injury suffered late in the football season/

“We're fortunate that he is back to 100 percent,” Martin said. “It's healed. We've brought him along slowly. Coach [Craig] Bodenschatz has done a real nice job at following the protocol set forth by the orthopedists and the other physicians that attended to him. … He's about as close to 100 percent as he can be right now.”

Martin is also looking forward to having Usa, who was injured last season.

“We had to shut him down last year,” Martin said. “His rehab has gone nicely. We're bringing him along slowly. If he returns to form, that means we are going to have three quality starters.”

That's because Tinsman, who was a very effective control pitcher, returns, too.

“The thing is all three of them are right-handers, but they are all three different styles of pitchers,” Martin said. “Tinsman will pitch to contact, but you won't hit him hard because he locates his pitches so well and changes speeds. Your defense has to play well behind him and make the routine plays.

“Michael has a different repertoire on the mound. The pitches he throws are different than Hunter. Two of the three probably have different arm slots so they each have their own thing to offer.”

Martin says he has as many as nine players who can give him solid innings when called upon.

The big holes for the Warriors are on the left side of the infield with the graduation of third baseman Pearce Bucher and shortstop Frank Ritter.

Sophomore James Harris takes over at shortstop. “He has a pretty slick glove,” Martin said. “We'll probably hit him down I the order so he can focus on playing well for us defensively. Any offensive production we get from him will be a bonus.”

Tinsman will play at third and so may a familiar face in a different uniform. Cam Mintz, who hit .438 for Handley last season, has transferred to Sherando.

“He can swing the bat, now,” Martin said. “We've just got to find a place to play him. He can play a little bit of everywhere. … When Jared Tinsman pitches, it looks like he'll start at third for us. He might play a little first at times and DH. He may even spell Harris at shortstop some. He swings the bat well enough that I'd be an idiot not to find a place for him somewhere.”

Martin said hie will revamp his lineup with speedy center fielder Nick Mazza moving from No. 9 to the leadoff spot. Second baseman Jack Duvall, the Warriors' hit-and-run hitter, will follow. Junior outfielder Payne Bauer, who hit .358 last season, Entsminger, Usa and Mintz round out the Top 6.

“We have a lot of potential offensively to score some runs,” Martin said. “What we have to improve on is that last year we failed miserably with runners in scoring position and less than two outs.”

James Wood has two strong arms with sophomore Payne and senior Bell, who tossed a three-hitter in a 5-1 win over Millbrook last season.

Coach Brent Lockhart is impressed with what he sees so far from both pitchers.

“I can't say enough about Mr. Payne's work ethic,” Lockhart said. “The time that he has put in has definitely showed in the talent bubble from his freshman year to his sophomore year. It is amazing. He has done and excellent job and he has improved.

“Bell's stamina is great,” he added. “He's a kid that can go out there and throw seven innings every game. It's not going to be an issue with him getting tired. It's just whether they are hitting him or not and he does a good job of mixing his pitches up and keeping the ball down low.”

The Colonels lost Brett Baker (.358), their top hitter from last season. Lockhart is looking to junior third baseman Kevin Brown and junior designated hitter/first baseman Hayden Cunningham to provide some pop in the middle of the lineup.

He hopes to find some other bats to emerge.

“I've got a handful of sophomores that are swinging the bat right now,” he said. “There's a huge difference of hitting well in the cage and hitting off of live pitching. It's going to boil down to who is hitting in the game as to who is getting the at-bats.”

Lockhart said sophomore Jayden Nixon, also a third baseman, is swinging well in the preseason.

Junior Carson Hoberg, a newcomer, and sophomore Kaden Spaid are battling at shortstop and that Payne can also play the position when not on the mound. Junior Daniel Copenhaver and sophomore Luke Gross are in the mix at second base. Payne, Bell and Cunningham are in the mix at first. Senior Colby Monroe returns at catcher, but sophomore Andrew Waters, Spaid and junior Lucas Whitacre also can play the position.

“We have lots of options,” Lockhart said. “Tons.”

Lockhart said the key for his team will be scoring runs. He said that over the past few years, his team wins more than 90 percent of the time when it scores five or more runs.

He says his team knows it can compete in the tough league.

“They understand exactly where we are and where we're going to be for the season,” he said. “Of course, there's always high expectations in everything. I firmly do believe that winning those couple of games last year, they're going to believe they can do it again this year.”

Handley struggled through the regular season last year, but pulled off a huge upset by knocking off second-seeded Sherando in the opening round of the district tournament.

They return the author of that victory on the mound in Downey.

“He's our No. 1,” Wingfield said. “He's the one who beat Sherando last year at the end of the season. He finished the season strong on the mound. He's a guy who has great control and knows what he is doing on the mound. Any time he goes out there, it's going to give us a good chance to win.”

Wingfield says he is liking what he is seeing in the preseason from Downey, who also catches when he is not pitching.

“He's a year older and it's given him a little more pop on his fastball which always help,” Wingfield said. “He threw a couple of innings in our first scrimmage and he had control of everything. It was good to see. He's feeling healthy. He's poised to have a good year.”

The rest of the staff will have to work itself out.

“After Tommy, last year we were trying to figure out who our No. 2 is,” Wingfield said. “To be honest, it's going to be a little like that this year. We're going to see who earns that second starting spot and we'll go on from there.”

Offensively, the Judges will rely on the bat of shortstop Logan McGinnis. The senior blistered pitchers at a .464 clip last season, the second-best average in the area.

“He is a guy who can compete against any pitcher,” Wingfield said. “ … If there's someone going out there throwing 55 mph or someone going out there throwing 85 mph, he stays back and he stays within himself. He uses the whole field. He's got the ability to put the bat on the ball and make defense make plays.”

Wingfield expects McGinnis to get some opportunity to drive in runs with Web Bentley leading off the lineup. Downey also will be counted on in the middle of the order. He hopes that last year's district tournament win will provide some carryover.

“It did give us a little confidence,” Wingfield said. “It gave them the idea that we can compete with all these teams, even the teams that have been winning the district consistently. … We gained confidence throughout that game and I was hoping they'd bring it back early this season. I kind of saw a little bit in our first scrimmage from kids that had success in that game, like Tommy and Logan.”

The Northwestern District teams have not cornered the market on pitching.

Clarke County also brings back a strong starting rotation, led by Colby Childs, who was 6-0 with an area-best 57 strikeouts in 51.2 innings.

Jackson Taylor (4-1, second in the area with 49 strikeouts) and Mike Edwards (3-1) round out the rotation.

“Colby was unbeaten last year. He'll be right back at the top as our No. 1,” Eagles coach Mike Smith said. “I feel comfortable at putting Jack or Matt at No. 2. They've got a lot of experience. Jack came up big in the postseason for us with some big games down the stretch. Even though they are juniors, they've got some experience and that's a plus.”

Clarke County's one loss is a big one. Winchester Star Player of the Year Kaden Warren (now at Lynchburg University) is gone from the middle of the lineup (where he hit .500) and from behind the plate.

Eamon Juday is coming in from the outfield to catch. The rest of the lineup is flexible, depending on who is pitching.

When Childs is pitching, second baseman Danny Lyman moves to shortstop. Ryan Miller can play in outfield and second base. Matt Edwards can play third base and first base when first baseman Williams is on the mound.

For the second consecutive season, Smith has 11 players on the roster, which he likes to keep lean.

“That's how it worked last year,” he said. “We had everybody involved in the game. They either would pinch-run or hit late in the game. A lot of guys saw action. … We can plug and play with the best of them.”

While Warren's big bat is gone, Lyman (.375), Edwards (.378) and Childs (.410) pack some wallop at the top of the order.

“I feel good about the whole lineup,” Smith said. “A lot of these kids have improved by playing summer ball, some camps and in the weight room. Honestly, I think we can hit No. 1 through No. 9.”

Smith, whose team lost a tough 10-6 decision in eight innings after leading 6-1 heading into the seventh against Stuarts Draft in the regional semifinals, expects a scrap in the Bull Run District.

“You always have to think about Central,” he said. “They lost six of their starters, but they've got back a couple of good arms. Strasburg is going to be right in there. They have some kids returning that gave us fits. [George] Mason has got a good arm back. Rappahannock has got an arm that's already signed to go Division I. I'm going to say that we are going to see everybody's best.”

Millbrook

Coach: Brian Burke, ninth season

Last year's overall and district record: 15-9 overall, 8-4 Northwestern District; Region 4C semifinalist; Northwestern District tournament champion.

Key losses (in terms of departed players): Alec Rudolph, Bailey Collins, Nick Varcadipane

Top returning players: Chandler Ballenger, Sr., P/1B; Caleb Benner, Sr., P; Cris Burger, Sr., C; Luke Churchill, Sr., OF/P; Daniel Croyle, Sr., 2B; Logan Hartigan, So., CF; Haden Madagan, Sr., P/OF; John Rosa, Sr., SS; Jalen Tyson, Sr., P/1B.

Top newcomers: Tyler Duckstein, Jr.; UT; Michael Robertson, Jr., 3B/P

Burke's outlook: “It's going to be an exciting year because I don't think there's going to be just one team that is going to take the district and run it. There's going to be a lot of splits and those kinds of things this year.”

First game: vs. Warren County, Tuesday, 6 p.m.

Sherando

Coach: Pepper Martin, 26th season

Last season: 13-8 overall, 8-4 Northwestern District.

Key losses: Frank Ritter, Pearce Bucher, Tad Dean, Kyle Armistead, David Ashby, A.J. Wunder.

Top returning players: Hunter Entsminger, Sr., P/OF; Michael Usa, Sr., P/1B; Jared Tinsman, Sr., P/3B; Jack Duvall, Sr., 2B; Nick Mazza, Sr., CF; Hunter Estep, Sr., OF; Payne Bauer, Jr., OF/P.

Top newcomers: McKinley Dean, Jr., P/1B; Cameron Mintz, Jr., UT/P; Calvin Bowser Jr., OF/P; Owen Even, Jr., C; Keaton Ritter, Jr., 3B; Mason See, So., P/UT; James Harris, So., SS/P; Andrew Plunkett, So., C.

Martin's outlook: “The coaching staff feels that the strength of this year's team should be the pitching staff... Our offensive run production will need to improve from last year and will be a point of emphasis in practices. We have decent team speed and our roster includes a number of players who are versatile at multiple positions. Our immediate team goal is to get better each week and be competitive in every game."

First Game: vs. Woodgrove, today, 6 p.m.

James Wood

Coach: Brent Lockhart, sixth season

Last year: 9-12 overall, 6-6 Northwestern District

Key losses: Brett Baker OF; Mitch Craig P;Trent Campbell P/INF; Tylor Mounts SS; Will Moore 1B; Tanner George OF.

Top returning players: Colby Monroe, Sr., C, Jacob Bell, Sr., P/1B, Kevin Brown, Jr. 3B, Hayden Cunningham, Jr., DH/1B, Daniel Copenhaver, Jr.; 2B, Tylor McBride, Sr., OF, Lucas Whitacre, Jr.; OF, Aden Payne, So., P/1B

Top newcomers: Jayden Nixon, So., 3B, Luke Gross So., P/2B, Kaden Spaid, So., SS, Andrew Waters, So., C/OF; Jaden Ashby, Fr., OF.; Joe Spielman, So., OF/P; Carson Hoberg, Jr., SS.

Lockhart's outlook: “We're going to be young. We're going to have 16 people on our roster and almost half the team is going to be sophomore and freshmen. Our challenge will be producing runs. If we can score runs, we're going to have a chance. Our pitchers are going to do well enough for us to compete. I don't see us having an issue with our defense. Our defense has been strong for years. … We're going to be young and we're going to be making mistakes. We have a lot of people who haven't seen varsity pitching or hitting yet, but it's going to be exciting. That sophomore group is very hungry. There is some talent there.”

First game: vs. Dominion, Tuesday, 6 p.m.

Handley

Coach: Patrick Wingfield, sixth season

Last year: 3-16 overall, 0-12 Northwestern District

Key losses: Jacob Torian, Matt Martin, Andrew Stotlemyer

Top returning players: Logan McGinnis, Jr., SS; Tommy Downey, Sr. P/C; Web Bentley, Sr., CF; Jacob Stewart, So., 1B/DH; Hunter Thompson, Jr., C.

Top newcomers: Ethan Schwantes, So., 3B/P; Ben Place, Jr., P/2B; Jacob Parker, Sr., OF.

Wingfield's outlook: “We return a lot of our lineup from last year. Offensively, it's kind of similar to last year, but with another year of experience that help us out. Same thing in the field., last we had a lot of guys playing positions for the first time and some that had to move around. This year is a little more stable.”

First game: at Clarke County, Thursday, 5 p.m.

Clarke County

Coach: Mike Smith, third season

Last year's record: 16-7 overall, 6-3 Bull Run District; Region 2B semifinalist

Key loss: Kaden Warren

Top returning players: Colby Childs, Jr., P/SS; Mike Edwards, Jr.; INF/P; Danny Lyman, Jr.; INF/P; Jackson Taylor, Jr., P/OF; Eamon Juday, Sr.; C/P; Matt Williams, Jr.; INF/P

Top newcomers: Jonah Cochran, So., OF/P

Smith's outlook: “We have a big spot there to fill, but with that being said I have all three starting pitchers back this year with a little more experience and some postseason experience. I'm expecting big things out of this group. We just have to give these guys a little offense. I'm sure we can produce and get into that rhythm. … They're extremely excited. It's baseball. Some of these are baseball only kids and they're looking forward to it. It was a little bit of a heartbreak last season with how that ended, but we've moved on from it. These guys, they're ready to go.”

First Game: at Luray, today, 5 p.m.

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