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Baseball preview: Teams swinging for top

Baseball preview: Teams swinging for top Baseball preview: Teams swinging for top
Brian Smith, Sports Editor

Soon, baseballs popping leather gloves and pinging off bats will become the norm at area baseball diamonds.
The fields at Corydon Central and South Central have undergone renovations since last season and hope to be welcoming to visiting squads.
Two programs ” Corydon Central and North Harrison ” have new coaches for 2019 in Robby Ort and Kevin Fessel, respectively.
Here is a look at each Harrison County team:
Corydon Central
The Panthers are coming off a 12-win season and enter this spring under the direction of first-year coach Robby Ort. Previously a co-coach at neighboring South Central, Ort played four seasons at Indiana State University before making his way to Southern Indiana.
‘Once my career was over, I decided, if I couldn’t play anymore, I wanted to be around the game with coaching,’ Ort said. ‘The opportunity opened up here, and I’m grateful and look forward to it.’
With the rules changing to allow more full squad practices in the offseason, Ort had the opportunity to not only meet with players, but witness strengths and weaknesses.
‘They are great kids and fun to be around,’ Ort said. ‘They want to be pushed and hope to have some success. It was good to get to know the kids and for them to know me. They understand my expectations moving forward.’
Fundamentals were drilled in the offseason along with defensive coverages and alignments when faced with certain situations. Ort hopes the repeated reps make execution in games reactionary.
One strength of the squad is the pitching staff. Three seniors head the top of the rotation, including one transfer, Justin Richardson. After attending Corydon Central as a freshman, Richardson moved to Utah, where he won a baseball state championship a season ago at Grantsville High School. He will join the returning senior arms of Logan Murphy and Gabe Fleace.
‘I think I am extremely lucky because we have two senior pitchers coming back,’ Ort said. ‘With Justin transferring back, he’s going to be a great arm for us. He will compete and push to be our No. 1. He’s back from Utah, where he was a big part of a 3A state championship. Having those three seniors is huge to lean on on the mound.’
The trio can also play various positions in the field, depending on who is pitching.
Catching the veteran staff are two upperclassmen, senior Noah Windell and junior Brenden Ayres.
‘Windell will be big for us,’ Ort said. ‘He will mainly catch but also throw some innings. He will play more second base, too. Ayres is a solid catcher, so it’s nice to have two upperclassmen catchers. They can handle the leadership with the position.’
Additional seniors include infielder/outfielder Blake McCauley and outfielder Brady Babcock.
‘Blake can play in different spots and is a kid that is always asking questions,’ Ort said. ‘He wants to better understand the game … We want Brady to focus on driving the ball to right center. If he can do that, he’ll be a big bat for our lineup in that five or six hole.’
A returning bat in the middle of the lineup is first baseman Chase Straub. Thrust into the lineup as a freshman a season ago, Straub is looking to add power for the Panthers.
‘We expect a lot out of him,’ Ort said. ‘He’s going to play a lot of first and will throw a few more innings … He’ll be the kid that hits in the middle of the lineup with pop. It’s trying to get him to understand he doesn’t have to take that big swing every single time. The size of the kid is unbelievable for a sophomore. The ball just sounds different coming off his bat.’
Another sophomore, Jacob Chaires, has competed well for the shortstop position. Classmate Jaden Singleton has shown speed to give him a crack at an outfield spot. Justin Drury is another sophomore expected to aid the pitching unit. Louisville Ballard transfer Jude Markwell is a utility player additon.
‘There is nothing wrong with competition,’ Ort said. ‘I’m trying to get used to the guys in different positions and see how guys react. The good thing is we have four early games before conference starts. It gives us time in those games to experiment to help benefit the team.’
Ort said he wants the team to play loose.
‘I think this group is going to play hard all the time,’ he said. ‘I don’t think they will ever quit. I can see they are fighters. I’m not a screamer or yeller. I want them to play loose, have fun and enjoy the game.’
The Eagles are poised to take another crack at Class 2A competition when the postseason rolls around in late May. Lanesville baseball has put together another challenging schedule of games featuring opponents across all four classes.
Although Lanesville lost several starters to graduation, coach Zach Payne enters 2019 with a rather young squad comprised of mostly sophomores and juniors.
‘We are a young group even though we have a lot of juniors that will play,’ Payne said. ‘We don’t have any seniors returning that started before, so we will have some youth out there. It’s exciting.’
A few areas Payne sees as a strength early on is the pitching staff as a whole and defensively in the middle of the field.
‘We are strong up the middle; pitcher, catcher, center field and our middle infield are all returning,’ Payne said. ‘In high school baseball, a big thing is to be strong around the middle, so we will build around that.’
Back for his junior year after hitting .346 is Zech Fink. Knocking a club-best 11 doubles a season ago, Fink scored 31 times while holding down shortstop for a second straight season.
In 2019, Fink is slated to give some innings on the mound as well.
‘He’s a guy we honestly forget about that has the ability to pitch,’ Payne said. ‘We haven’t seen him (pitching) a whole lot because his freshman year he was our only shortstop and last year he had some shoulder issues. This year, he is corrected and good to start pitching in the next couple of weeks at 100 percent. We are looking forward to seeing what he could add at the mound.’
Justin Bailey, a junior, is back as a pitching option along with handling middle infield duties at second base. Returning at centerfield is junior Isaac Casabella, entering his third year as a starter. Filling the catching role is Aaron Lockman, a junior.
‘Justin Bailey, when he isn’t pitching, will be our second baseman,’ Payne said. ‘Aaron had surgery in the offseason, but he’s healthy with a lot of experience catching. He plays a lot of summer ball, so we expect him to give us good production.’
Within the pitching rotation, Bailey and Fink will be joined by Gabe Gowens, Matthew Lindsey and Jensin Philpott.
‘Gabe and Justin will come back to give us experience on the mound,’ Payne said. ‘We feel we are deeper than we have been at some positions, especially at pitching. We are trying to figure out who that one guy will be to step up and be the guy.’
Gowens handles a corner infield position as well after hitting .299 last season, driving in 18 runs. Bailey and Gowens each threw 28 innings as sophomores.
Lanesville, after finishing 12-14 a season ago, features three seniors: catcher Levi Decker along with outfielders Chase Blank and Jacob Graves.
‘They are good kids that bring leadership, which is valuable to our team,’ Payne said.
Sophomore Brayden Keisler looks to make a bid for the first-base job. Among those seeking one of the corner outfield spots are junior Bryce Kendall and freshman Ty Tidstrom.
‘Bryce is a guy that started for us at times in the outfield last year but struggled at the plate,’ Payne said. ‘Defensively, he’s right there with Isaac. He had a good offseason at the plate, so we will see how he grows. Ty, he’s an athlete.’
The coach said they have plenty of utility-type players, which will make adjustments when pitching changes occur.
Goal-wise, Lanesville seeks to emerge from the 2A sectional (which the Eagles will host) on Memorial Day.
‘I think that sectional is still pretty wide open,’ Payne said. ‘We may not have the best pitcher in that sectional, but we feel like we may have the most pitchers to keep us in games. We want to take advantage of our strengths … We want to take a good shot at the 2A sectional.’
North Harrison
There is familiarity among the large group of seniors within the North Harrison program for first-year coach Kevin Fessel. After serving as the junior varsity coach the previous three seasons, his first year on staff was with the current senior class.
Fessel, who also is an assistant football coach at North Harrison, is poised to get the season going with a veteran group.
‘I’ve been around these guys,’ Fessel said. ‘It’s been a blessing to watch them grow. I really enjoy this group. We have a lot of experience back, so we are going to rely heavily on the eight seniors we have.’
The Cougars graduated five seniors a season ago, including several multi-year starters.
Within the current upper-class group, Fessel said seven have seen previous varsity playing time.
‘That experience will go a long way because these guys made it to a sectional final last year to play against a team that ended up the state (Class 3A) runner-up (Silver Creek),’ Fessel said.
Two of the top returning bats lie with infielder Jake Harley and catcher Skyler Wetzel. Both hit north of .300 as juniors.
‘Jake Harley is back, and I’m thinking he will be our shortstop,’ Fessel said. ‘He will have big shoes to fill with Jake Book graduating, and I think Harley is ready for it. Zane Armstrong is back as our center fielder. He’s the captain out there. He can chase down balls, and I’ve enjoyed seeing the effort in practice.’
Wetzel makes his return behind the plate.
‘I feel like Skyler is ready to go with it,’ Fessel said. ‘He’s looked good back there so far.’
Several seniors make up the pitching staff, including Justin Deatrick, Evan Lasley, Ben Davis and Caden Smith.
‘Justin Deatrick and Ben Davis are going to be our two lock-down pitchers,’ Fessel said. ‘I think we could go either way as an opening-day guy. Deatrick has a nasty curve ball, and Ben can hit his spots really well. I look forward to seeing those two on the mound as our conference guys.’
Lasley, when not pitching, will man first base. Coach said he’s been impressed with Lasley’s maturity during the last year and has evolved into a quality leader.
Other players looking to fill out innings on the bump include Isaiah Lawson, Colin Higdon and Dawson Howell. One of two juniors, Howell is joined in that class by Jadyn Martin. Infielder Cole Ballew also is part of the senior group.
‘We have some young guys that are going to have to improve,’ Fessel said. ‘They need to use the JV season to get used to the speed of the game.’
Jake Galligan is another player Fessel said can compete for a corner outfield spot.
The coaching staff with Fessel is made up of North Harrison baseball alumni. Lincoln Jones coached last year and moves to the varsity assistant position, while Josh Wenning and Micah Napper join the program.
‘I feel like we have a really good staff,’ Fessel said. ‘These guys are fresh in the game.’
Within practice and the game, Fessel said he wants players to have fun.
‘I think having fun with the game of baseball while learning the skills is important,’ he said. ‘It makes you want to come out and compete even harder. We do a lot of competitive drills. I want them to compete but have fun doing it. It’s about challenging them.’
On and off the field, Fessel said the team breaks down after each practice with a message of ‘Win the day.’
‘In all your choices, you want to win,’ he said. ‘We want to make the best choices to be a better baseball player, better student, better person. You are going to be faced with choices daily, and I want them to win each day.’
South Central
With most of its lineup returning plus some new additions, the South Central baseball program is seeking to take a jump forward this spring.
After a 5-21 record a season ago, the Rebels graduated only one senior and bring back a plethora of options.
‘The big difference between this year and last is everyone has varsity playing experience,’ said Alex Wiseman, who co-coaches the team with his father, Brad Wiseman. ‘It’s night and day when you go from junior high or travel ball to a high school varsity pitcher standing on the mound. Now they know what to expect. We had growing pains last year, but we are miles ahead of where we were at this point last year.’
All of the pitching rotation, led by junior right-hander Zach Needler, is back.
‘Needler will be our No. 1 going into the year,’ co-coach Brad Wiseman said. ‘From there, we have several arms looking to step up.’
Three seniors have varsity playing experience in first baseman/pitcher Will Weber, pitcher/catcher Chase Schoen and pitcher/outfielder Wyatt Crosier.
‘We are going to lean on them all season long with their experience,’ Brad Wiseman said. ‘Crosier is probably going to be our No. 3 pitcher; Chase will hold down catcher with Will at first base. Will may be our No. 2 pitcher. We will lean on him to throw some innings this year.’
A handful of seniors fill out the 2019 class, including first-season players Bryce Lewis and Coby Judd.
‘One of our new seniors, Coby Judd, has never played high school baseball but has the best attitude out of a high school kid. He’s really bought in,’ Brad Wiseman said. ‘Bryce Lewis played down at SHAC and decided his freshman year he wanted to play golf. This year, he approached us that he wanted to play and also play golf.’
To go with Needler in the junior class is returning contributors in outfielder Ryan Steen and infielder Austin Tyree along with Jordan Huda.
It’s a large sophomore group for the Rebels. Among them is returning shortstop/pitcher Wesley Wilson, who got off to a strong high school campaign a year ago. Nathan Farnsley, a pitcher/infielder, is expected to make a jump on the hill.
‘Nathan Farnsley needs to have a break-out year for us on the mound as does Will,’ Alex Wiseman said. ‘Needler is going to be our main guy on the mound, but those two are going to log a lot of innings. We need them to be effective. So far in practice, they have shown up. Farnsley has matured. A year makes a big difference.’
Other sophomores who logged several games at the varsity level as freshmen making their return include Evan Schoen, Cam Bledsoe and Frank Goodwin. Additional sophomores looking to compete are Dawson O’Connor, Nolan Brown and Stephen Sawicki.
‘This year, with the numbers we have, we have a full schedule of JV and varsity games lined up,’ Brad Wiseman said. ‘It’s going to help our JV guys develop.’
One key early on has been competition. The coaching staff said they communicate after each practice about personnel.
‘I’m not sure our starting eight is set in stone yet,’ Brad Wiseman said. ‘We like Wesley at short, Will at first, Needler on the mound and Chase behind the plate. We’ve tried to emphasize competition with the guys.’
So is willingness to develop during the course of the season.
‘We want to finish strong,’ Brad Wiseman said. ‘We want to finish every at bat, every inning, every game. It’s never over until it’s over.’
One area the Rebels seek to improve is having quality at bats.
‘We did not consistently hit, and it was a problem last year, especially in big moments,’ Alex Wiseman said. ‘A lot of that has to do with experience, but we are a year seasoned. You are going to be a little more confident coming out here instead of being the new kid on the block.’