Baseball Preview: Area teams looking to rebuild from graduation

For most baseball seasons in the Northwestern District, you can expect Sherando and Millbrook to be scrapping it out for the league title.

With each having suffered big graduation losses, the Warriors and Pioneers might be chasing another team in the Class 4 race.

Kettle Run won the district tournament and advanced to the state quarterfinals last season behind standout pitcher and third baseman Joe Vogatsky. The James Madison commit is back for the Cougars, who were third (8-4) in the district regular season behind the Warriors (11-1) and Pioneers (9-3).

Regular-season games were originally supposed to begin this week for area teams. Because of coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns, the Virginia High School League announced last week that the first competition date for spring sports will be delayed until March 30.

When the season kicks off, the perennial district favorites face big rebuilding efforts thanks to graduation. The Warriors, who fell in the regional semifinals to eventual state finalist Riverside, lost their top three pitchers, plus five of their top seven hitters in their lineup. Millbrook graduated eight contributing seniors, including five hitters with averages of .333 or better.

“It’s a little atypical this year of what it’s been like for us in the past few years,” Sherando coach Pepper Martin said. “The past few years going into the preseason we pretty much knew who our starters on the mound were going to be. Graduating our top three starters, those are some big shoes to fill.”

“We’ve had eight seniors and have been down this road before,” Millbrook coach Brian Burke said. “But we’ve never had eight contributing seniors like we had last year. That makes our jobs a little bit tougher, but what we do have are experienced guys moving up from the JV to the varsity level. … I feel like this is probably as different as it has been in my 10 years at Millbrook in that we’ve never had to replace this many. It’s sort of an unknown and uncharted waters for us.”

While losing 14 victories on the mound due to graduation, Sherando does have a couple of key offensive cogs returning.

The biggest basher is outfielder Payne Bauer, who batted .439 (second in the area) with 21 RBIs and an area-best 30 runs. Third baseman Cam Mintz, shortstop James Harris and catcher Andrew Plunkett also return to the starting lineup.

McKinley Dean (1B) and Cole Armel (2B) are newcomers to the infield. Bauer (RF) and newcomer Drew Franchok (CF) have solidified spots in the outfield. Mason See and Calvin Bowser are battling in left field.

Parker Clendenen (1B), Owen Even (C) and Keaton Ritter (3B) will see backup action. Versatile Tanner Muller can play everywhere on the infield.

That’s important because Martin has 10 different pitchers listed on the roster.

“With us having a number of our players also serving as pitchers, there’s going to a be a lot of different combinations,” Martin said.

Dean, Mintz and See are the likely starters, but Bauer, Muller, Armel, Harris, Franchok, Bowser and John McIntyre could see time on the mound.

“There’s a difference between pitchers and throwers,” Martin said. “We’ll filter that out as soon as we possibly can early in the season.”

Millbrook has a little better idea of who will be its primary starters. Michael Robertson (3-2, 2.88 ERA) was the team’s top starter near the end of the season and Tyler Duckstein (2.93 ERA, 45 strikeouts) saw a lot of action out of the bullpen.

“They’ve really got to contribute for us on the mound,” Burke said. “We’ll be counting on them more heavily this year than what we did going into the preseason last year. We didn’t expect to get as many innings (53 combined) as they ended up having to pitch. … They have the ability to do what they did last year without question.”

Robertson (3B) and Logan Hartigan (CF) are the only returning starters in the field. Hartigan hit .375, drove in 22 runs, scored 27 runs and stole 14 bases out of the leadoff spot.

Newcomer Harrison Madagan and Duckstein are battling at first base. Hayden Burke will start at second, while Ethan Burgreen and Timothy Hughes are scrapping at shortstop. Hughes can also play at third.

Musselman transfer Jerrod Jenkins, a switch-hitter, is one of three players looking to catch, but can also play corner infield and outfield positions. Robbie Hummer and Duckstein are in the mix at catcher.

Sebastian Tringali, Garrett Hart and Hughes are battling to flank Hartigan in the outfield.

“I expect we’re going to have our bumps in the road and be faced with different types of challenges this year just because they don’t have some varsity experience,” Burke said.

While pointing to Kettle Run as the district favorite, Burke and Handley coach Pat Wingfield says you can’t overlook James Wood, under first-year head coach Adrian Pullen.

“I think James Wood is a much improved group,” said Burke, echoing Wingfield’s sentiment. “I think their junior class is one of the best around. I’ve had the opportunity to coach those players for the past two summers and falls and I know what they’re capable of doing.”

Pullen hopes his team can live up to the praise.

“We’re a young team,” he said. “We’ve only got four seniors. We’ve got six juniors, four sophomores and a freshman. Seven of the 11 underclassmen have varsity experience, so hopefully we won’t be fresh to the varsity scene. We have guys with experience and we’re looking to compete at the highest level we can compete at.”

Pullen said Kaden Spaid, Luke Gross, Daniel Copenhaver and Bodie Pullen are in the mix at the middle infield positions. Kevin Brown and Jayden Nixon are battling at third base. Nate White, Brown, Aden Payne and Nick Bell are in the mix at first. Lucas Whitacre, Joe Spielman, Jaden Ashby, Jacob Roy, Brody Bower and Nixon are scrapping in the outfield.

Andrew Waters and Spaid are catching. White, Spielman, Luke Gross, Payne, Pullen and Bell are potential pitchers.

Pullen likes what he sees.

“The four seniors [Copenhaver, Whitacre, Brown and White] are leading by example,” he said. “They have worked in the offseason. The young guys are buying into the work I expect from them. They’ve set goals and they are working hard to achieve those goals and they’re holding each other accountable. That’s all I can ask as a coach.”

Handley’s Wingfield also has experienced some key losses.

“We do only return four players from last year’s team,” he said. “There are going be to a lot of sophomores that are thrown right into the mix and one freshman. I think there’s going to be a good little learning curve to it, but I like the way we’ve been swinging the bats. We’re a team that’s going to have to rely on the defense behind the pitching.”

Hunter Thompson will return at catcher for the Judges. Jacob Stewart (1B), Griffin Hott (2B), Nick Hott (SS) and Cael Sanders (3B) will start in the infield. Logan McGinnis and Jacob Duffy have sewn up two outfield spots. Chris Millotte leads the mix for a third outfield slot.

McGinnis, a senior who has started since he was a freshman, is a proven hitter and batted .397 last season. “He’s been one of the leaders in the district the past two years and I expect him to be up there again,” Wingfield said.

Stewart batted .339 and Nick Hott provided some power with two homers.

Nick and Griffin Hott will be the primary starting pitchers for the Judges.

While Vogatsky makes Kettle Run the district favorite, area teams think they can be in the mix at the end of the season.

“He is tough,” Martin said of the Cougars senior. “He will be their No. 1 starter. He can catch. He can play third base and he can flat-out hit. … On paper they’d probably be considered the favorites, but that’s why you play the schedule.”

Clarke County coach Mike Smith is the first to admit that last season’s 12-10 mark coming off a trip to the Region 2B semifinals the previous season was tough.

“It was kind of a disappointment,” Smith said. “The 12-10 record doesn’t really show the talent we have on the field. It was just one of those seasons. … There were some games that got away from us. We finished over .500, which is always good, but I think we were expecting to do a little bit better.”

The Eagles have talent. Seniors Matt Williams (Shepherd), Colby Childs (Hood), Jack Taylor (Potomac State) and Ryan Miller (Eastern Mennonite) each have signed to play in college this fall.

Smith can pencil in plenty of returnees in his lineup, several with big numbers from a year ago.

Third baseman Mike Edwards tied for second in the area with a .439 average and was second with 28 RBIs and five homers. He also scored 22 times. Shortstop Childs hit .403, drove in 22 runs, scored 26 and led the area with six homers. Center fielder Taylor hit .359 and second baseman Danny Lyman batted .354 and swiped seven bases.

Williams returns at first. Miller (C) and Luke Lyman (RF) are new starters. Jonah Cochran (three homers last season), Nick Orndorff and Nick Testa are battling to start in left and for a designated hitter spot. Luke Lyman can play multiple spots when players swap positions based on the pitching situation.

Taylor (5-2, 2.19 ERA, 43 strikeouts), Childs (5-2, 3.16 ERA, 49 strikeouts) and Williams (3.74 ERA) give Smith a deep and experienced staff.

“These guys have pretty much been the staple of this high school lineup for the last three years,” Smith said of his club. “It’s been pretty easy to fill out this lineup. I’ve just had to change a catcher every now and then. … It’s a luxury.”

With new additions, especially Page County (a Class 2 semifinalist last season and the state champion in 2018), to the Bull Run, Smith expects a tough fight in district play.

“It’s the toughest it’s been in years with Page County and East Rockingham in there,” Smith said. “... Strasburg is always Strasburg and they’ve always got good players. … It’s going to be one of those years we’ve got to produce.”

SherandoCoach: Pepper Martin, 27th season

Last year: 19-4 overall, 11-1 Class 4 Northwestern District; district regular-season champion

Key Losses: Hunter Entsminger, Michael Usa, Jared Tinsman, Jack Duvall, Nick Mazza, Hunter Estep.

Top returning players: Payne Bauer (Sr., OF/P); McKinley Dean (Sr., P/1B); Cameron Mintz (Sr., 3B/P); Calvin Bowser (Sr., OF/P); Keaton Ritter (Sr., 3B); Owen Even (Sr., C/OF); James Harris (Jr., SS/P); Andrew Plunkett (Jr., C); Mason See (Jr., OF/P).

Top newcomers: John McIntyre (Sr., P/2B); Cole Armel (Jr., 2B/P); Drew Franchok (Jr., CF/P); Parker Clendenen (Jr., 1B); Tanner Muller (So., UTL).

Martin’s outlook: “We’re counting on some of our younger players who are showing a lot of potential at the plate to help fill the offensive void left from graduation. We have decent team speed and our roster includes a number of players who are versatile at multiple positions. Our immediate team goals are to establish the roles of our pitching staff, work hard to get better each week, and be competitive in every game.”

MillbrookCoach: Brian Burke, 10th season

Last year: 14-6 overall, 9-3 Class 4 Northwestern District

Key losses: Chandler Ballenger, Jalen Tyson, John Rosa, Haden Madagan, Daniel Croyle, Cris Burger, Caleb Benner, Luke Churchill.

Top returning players: Michael Robertson (Sr., 3B/P); Tyler Duckstein (Sr., UT/P); Logan Hartigan (Jr., OF).

Top newcomers: Hayden Burke (Jr., 2B); Harrison Madagan (Jr., 1B); Sebastian Tringali (Jr., OF); Ethan Burgreen (So., SS); Jerrod Jenkins (So., C/P).

Burke’s outlook: “We’re going to be looking to improve with each game, each practice. … We play a very tough schedule. I think it’s going to be a great learning experience for the majority of our players who have not played at the varsity level yet. As long as we can play the game the right way and have a strong mentality, understand that this game is a game of failures, we’re seeing growth as players and we’re seeing improvement from Day 1 until the last day of the season, I think the coaching staff will be happy with whatever it is when the records shake out and the district tournament begins.”

James WoodCoach: Adrian Pullen, first year

Last year: 7-14 overall, 3-9 Class 4 Northwestern District

Key losses: Jacob Bell, Tylor McBride, Colby Monroe.

Top returning players: Kevin Brown (Sr., IF); Daniel Copenhaver (Sr., IF); Lucas Whitacre (Sr., OF); Nate White (Sr., P/1B); Luke Gross (Jr., P/IF); Jayden Nixon (Jr., IF/OF); Aden Payne (Jr., P/1B); Kaden Spaid (Jr., C/IF/P); Joe Spielman (Jr., P/OF), Andrew Waters (Jr., C/OF); Jayden Ashby (So., OF).

Top newcomers: Brody Bower (So., OF); Bodie Pullen, So. (UTL/P); Jacob Roy (So., OF); Nick Bell (Fr., P/1B).

Pullen’s outlook: “We hope to earn a spot after the regular season in the top half of district. We hope to peak at the right time and make a run at the end. That’s our mantra and what we’re looking forward to do. If we can do that and get better each week, we’ll be in good shape.”

HandleyCoach: Pat Wingfield, seventh season

Last year: 3-18 overall, 1-11 Class 4 Northwestern District

Key losses: Tommy Downey, Web Bentley.

Top returning players: Logan McGinnis, (Sr., CF); Nick Hott, (Sr., SS/P); Hunter Thompson (Sr., C/P); Jacob Stewart (Jr., 1B).

Top newcomers: Jacob Duffy, (So., UTL); Austin Smith (So., 2B/P); Griffin Hott, (Fr., INF/P).

Wingfield’s outlook: “I think we will have a solid lineup. We return a lot of our lineup. … With a year’s experience, I think they will produce real well. I like the young guys in the lineup. Pitching-wise, we don’t have a lot of velocity, but we will throw a lot of strikes and rely on the defense behind them. We have some more athletes behind them.”

Clarke CountyCoach: Mike Smith, four season

Last year: 12-10 overall, 6-4 Bull Run District

Key losses: Eamon Juday.

Top returners: Colby Childs, (Sr., SS/P), Mike Edwards, (Sr., 3B); Danny Lyman (Sr., 2B); Matt Williams (Sr., 1B/P); Jack Taylor (Sr., OF/P); Ryan Miller (Sr., C).

Top newcomers: Luke Lyman (So., UTL/P).

Smith’s outlook: “If our experienced pitching can get it done and the top part of our lineup, which are run-producing guys, can produce, I think we can battle with the best of them in the Bull Run. I think we should be up there. I’m hoping we can make it into a regional and go on from there, but it’s a very tough district.”

— Contact Walt Moody at
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