Area Baseball Outlook

By the time a baseball player reaches the big leagues, teams have a pretty good idea how that player will perform at the highest level.

This spring, most of the area’s high school baseball coaches don’t have that luxury. With no season last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and large graduating classes, most of the area programs have opened this season with multiple players on the diamond who had never started a varsity game.

So as teams began their second week of district play on Tuesday, there’s still a bit of mystery about how the lineups will perform.

“A lot of these guys with that lost season, we’re bringing up a lot of guys who played as JVs and sophomores and then they lost their junior years,” said Millbrook coach Brian Burke. “We figured that last year would have been our year to put the team out and get [the players’] feet wet. Then suddenly we don’t have it and these guys are pressed into starting roles.”

“We are dealing with a lot of unknowns heading into the season just as other schools are since the entire 2020 season was wiped out due to the pandemic,” Sherando coach Pepper Martin said prior to last week. “Our roster includes only three returning varsity position players and Mason See is our lone pitcher with any varsity mound experience.”

“Missing a year hurts us a little more than it hurts other people in the area just because a lot of our team is made up of players that baseball is not their primary sport,” Handley coach Patrick Wingfield said. “They’re not playing in the offseason. It’s unfortunate that they missed last season and did not get a chance to develop.”

That feeling isn’t relegated to just the Class 4 Northwestern District coaches. Clarke County’s Mike Smith is right there with them. He lost multiple position players and pitchers from a team that was expected to contend in the Bull Run District last season. He has just one proven hitter in the lineup.

“We lost eight seniors off a pretty good group,” Smith said. “Some of those kids are playing college ball right now.”

The one exception is James Wood. The Colonels, who have played many young players over the years, have a group of juniors and seniors who have been together for a long time.

“Our senior group has pretty much played together their whole lives,” first-year coach Adrian Pullen said. “And our juniors and sophomores, some of those guys have played with me [in youth baseball] since they were eight.”

With a condensed schedule and 10 district games, coaches expect the Class 4 Northwestern District race to be tight. In addition to the local squads, Kettle Run and Fauquier usually field strong teams, too.

“I look for five or six teams at least to have a shot at winning the district,” Pullen said.

“Every game is important,” echoed Burke.

Entering Tuesday’s action, Millbrook (2-0) has gotten off to an impressive start, thanks in a big part to outstanding pitching.

Jerrod Jenkins, a transfer from Mussleman (W.Va.), threw a one-hitter with 11 strikeouts in a 9-2 win over Sherando to open the season and Ethan Burgreen followed that up with another one-hitter with 10 strikeouts in a 4-0 win over Fauquier.

Lefty Logan Hartigan, who is headed to George Mason in the fall, is the leadoff hitter in a solid lineup that boasts two switch-hitters in Jenkins and Carl Keenan.

In the infield, the Pioneers go with Harrison Madagan (1B), Hayden Burke (2B), Burgreen (SS) and Nate Brookshire (3B). Hartigan will start in center field. With Sebastian Tringali, Will Croyle and Braden George getting time in the outfield. Keenan is behind the plate and Jenkins also can catch.

The Pioneers have solid team speed and have swiped 10 bases already this season. Hayden Burke has been on base in five of his six plate appearances thus far.

Sherando (1-1) rebounded from its loss to Millbrook and whipped Liberty 9-1. James Harris, who sees most of his action at shortstop, tossed a six-hitter with 10 strikeouts.

See will be the Warriors’ No. 1 starter, but the Warriors have several players capable of taking a turn.

In the infield, Martin will go with Parker Clendenen (1B), Tanner Muller (2B), Harris (SS) and Cole Armel (3B). Andrew Plunkett returns at catcher. Drew Franchok (CF), Zach Symons (RF) and Terrell Roberts (LF) have started in the outfield. Donovyn Willis has gotten cuts at DH.

Harris, a cross country standout, has excellent speed out of the leadoff spot and Franchok has lefty power at the plate.

“We have a good group of kids,” Martin said after the Millbrook loss. “They’re very coachable. We will improve and we will get to where we need to be.”

In addition to experience, Pullen has a versatile group with several of his players being able to shift around based on need.

Jayden Nixon can play at third, second and in the outfield. Kaden Spaid, Bodie Pullen and Luke Gross can play middle infield positions, while Nick Bell and Colin McGuire are at the corners. Outfielders are Jaden Ashby, Brody Bower and Jacob Roy. Spaid, Andrew Waters and Ryan Clupp can see time at catcher and Aden Payne, who is nursing an injury, will get at-bats at designated hitter.

Spaid, Gross, Bodie Pullen, Bell and McGuire make up the pitching staff.

Offensively, Adrian Pullen expects contributions from throughout his lineup. Spaid and Nixon, who both recently signed with Division II Davis & Elkins, Ashby and Payne are proven varsity hitters.

“We’ve spent a lot of time in the weight room and we hope that pays off,” said Pullen, whose team opened the season with a 16-1 rout of Handley. “Hopefully we can get some base hits and drive the ball a little better than we have in the past.”

Wingfield hopes the Judges (off to a 1-2 start) will improve as the season progresses.

Griffin Hott will be the Judges’ No. 1 starter and will play second base when he’s not on the mound.

“He has very good control of his pitches,” Wingfield said. “He doesn’t throw as hard as I think he will in the future. He’s a sophomore right now. … His fastball and his changeup, I think he controls those pitches very well.”

While the Judges shift positions often, Josh Stickles (catcher), Jacob Stewart (1B), Kaplan Ambrose (2B), Jacob Duffy (SS) and Bobby Crosen (3B) are the primary starters in the infield.

Austin Smith (CF) has been the one constant in the outfield with the other starters coming on a game-to-game basis.

Wingfield looks for Stewart, who has started since he was a freshman, Hott and Ambrose, a lefty leadoff hitter, Duffy and Smith to carry the Judges’ offense.

Smith is counting on many new faces this season for Clarke County.

Luke Lyman (1B), Caleb Childs (2B), Matt Sipe (SS), Dagan Kitner (3B), Quenton Slusher (LF), Brandon Hindman (CF) and Jonah Cochran (RF) are starting for the Eagles (1-1). Ben Thompson and Owen Garber are splitting time behind the plate and Theo Wood is filling in depending who is on the mound.

Lyman is the Eagles’ No. 1 pitcher, followed by Kitner and Cochran, who struck out 12 in a win over Page County.

Cochran, who will play baseball at Louisburg (N.C.) College, brings some pop at the plate as he belted three homers as a sophomore. “When he gets a hold of one, it travels,” Smith said. “He can hit the ball hard.”

Smith says the Bull Run will be tough this season. Strasburg, East Rockingham and Stonewall Jackson look to be strong. “It’s just going to be a dogfight to be honest with you,” he said. “It’s going to be who has the best pitching that day for sure.”

Millbrook

Coach: Brian Burke, 10th season

2019 record: 14-6 overall, 9-3 Class 4 Northwestern District

Key losses: Tyler Duckstein, Michael Robertson

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

Top newcomers: Diante Ball (Sr. OF); Nate Brookshire (So., 3B); Will Croyle (Jr., UT); Braden George (Jr., OF); Micah George (Fr., UT); Aiden Henry (Jr., P); Carl Keenan (So., C); Brandon Mullins (Jr., P); Kristian Smith (Sr., OF).

Burke’s outlook: “We have two guys [Hartigan and Jenkins] with true varsity experience. We weren’t sure what really to expect. I’m impressed. I’m impressed with our defense. … [Against Sherando], we had quality defense and quality at-bats.”

Next game: Today vs. Harrisonburg

Sherando

Coach: Pepper Martin, 27th season

2019 record: 19-4 overall, 11-1 Class 4 Northwestern District; district regular-season champion

Key losses: Payne Bauer, McKinley Dean, Cameron Mintz, Calvin Bowser, John McIntyre, Owen Even, Keaton Ritter.

Top returners: James Harris (Sr., SS/P); Andrew Plunkett (Sr., C); Mason See (Sr., P/OF); Drew Franchok (Sr., CF/P); Cole Armel (Sr., 3B/P); Parker Clendenen (Sr., 1B); Tanner Muller (Jr., 2B/UT).

Top newcomers: Saxton Garver (Sr., 3B); Zach Symons (Jr., OF/P); Terrell Roberts (Jr., OF); David English (Jr., 1B/P); Tyler Campbell (Jr., C/3B); Trevor Mele (Jr., SS); Donovyn Willis (So., 2B).

Martin’s outlook: “Regardless of the lack of experience Coach [Craig] Bodenschatz always does a good job with our pitching staff and is pleased with their development thus far. We are counting on our returning starters and seniors who are getting their first opportunity to start 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.”

Next game: Thursday vs. James Wood

James Wood

Coach: Adrian Pullen, first season

2019 record: 7-14 overall, 3-9 Class 4 Northwestern District

Key losses: Kevin Brown, Daniel Copenhaver, Lucas Whitacre, Nate White

Top returners: Luke Gross (Sr., P/INF); Jayden Nixon (Sr., INF/OF); Aden Payne (Sr., UT); Kaden Spaid (Sr., P/INF); Andrew Waters (Sr., C/OF); Jaden Ashby (Jr., OF); Brody Bower (Jr., OF); Bodie Pullen (Jr., P/INF); Jacob Roy (Jr., OF); Nick Bell (So., P/INF).

Top newcomers: Ryan Clupp (Jr., C/OF); Colin McGuire (So., P/INF).

Pullen’s outlook: “We just want to compete. We feel like if we compete we are going to be OK. If we come out and play as a team, play hard and fast every single game, we’re going to do fine. We’ll give ourselves a chance when it comes down to tournament time.”

Next game: Thursday at Sherando

Handley

Coach: Patrick Wingfield, seventh season

2019 record: 3-18 overall, 1-11 Class 4 Northwestern District

Key losses: Logan McGinnis, Hunter Thompson, Nick Hott

Top returners: Jacob Stewart (Sr., 1B); Jacob Duffy (Jr., SS); Austin Smith (Jr., UT); Josh Stickles (Jr., C); Griffin Hott (So., P/2B).

Top newcomers: Kaplan Ambrose (Fr., UT); Jaylin Figueroa (Jr., P/OF).

Wingfield’s outlook: “We definitely have the farthest to go of the teams in the district, but I also think we will increase the most along the way. I think right now after playing our first two district games, it’s been a struggle, especially defensively. That’s something we need more experience with and throughout the season we will become much better defensively. … I think once we shore up our defense, we will have some success.”

Next game: Today at Park View

Clarke County

Coach: Mike Smith, fourth season

2019 record: 12-10 overall, 6-4 Bull Run District

Key losses: Colby Childs, Danny Lyman, Mike Edwards, Matt Williams, Ryan Miller, Jack Taylor

Top returners: Luke Lyman (Jr. P/3B); Jonah Cochran (Sr., OF/P)

Top newcomers: Dagan Kitner (So., P/3B/1B) Matt Sipe (So., SS/P), Brandon Hindman (Jr., CF/P).

Smith’s outlook: “We hope to just get each kid better and to be competitive in games. Then, the wins will take care of themselves. … Now it’s time for these kids to step up and get it done. I’d like to see us finish over .500 and be one of the top four teams in the region and possibly go on into postseason play, but right now we’re just trying to find our way.”

Next game: Friday vs. Stonewall Jackson

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