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Prep baseball: Mehle, Irish confident as season approaches

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston Catholic's baseball team has punched its ticket to the State Tournament with much frequency during Coach Bill Mehle's 17-year tenure.

And with plenty of experience returning to a team seeking its third straight tournament appearance, and eighth in the last 12 seasons, Mehle likes what he's seen so far.

"We feel very positive about the upcoming season," Mehle said. "We have six returning starters from last year's team, as well as five other kids with significant playing time.

"Our core group of guys is back that finished as state runners up in 2011, and made it back to the state tournament last year. They're a group of guys that are hard-nosed competitors and they know through their experience, the effort and discipline that it takes to gain the skills and confidence necessary to battle in the postseason."

The Irish's six returning regulars are seniors Rocco Wilcox (CF), Kiefer Hovorka (P/SS), Nelson McKown (1B), Andy Hoyer (OF/P), and Drew Cable (C), along with junior Connor Golden (INF).

That group returns with plenty of accolades with Wilcox and Hovorka earning first-team All-State honors last season, while McKown and Hoyer earned second-team honors. Golden garnered special honorable mention honors.

Wilcox (.479), Golden (.440), and McKown (.421) finished second, third and fifth in the Kanawha Valley in batting average leader standings last spring.

Hovorka and Hoyer are what Mehle calls the Irish's "two big-game pitchers."

Hoyer finished an area-best 11-2 last season, while Hovorka finished 7-2.

Five other players return after seeing action last season in seniors Jack Crockett (OF/DH) and Vincent Stricker (P/OF), and sophomore utility players Jordan Covelli, Thad Jameson, and Sam McKown.

"We know we need an everyday outfielder and another starting infielder," Mehle said. "The guys will be competing for positions and we'll experimenting to see what combination of players gives us the strongest defense and most offensive power.

"As long as we stay healthy and focused and get quality senior leadership throughout the season, we feel that we can be very competitive."

Here's a quick peek at the area's other Class AA and Class A programs. (Herbert Hoover was featured in Monday's Daily Mail):

Buffalo - Coach Jimmy Tribble welcomed 17 players to spring practice, including a slew of pitching arms to choose from.

"I think we're going to have some pitching, but I don't know if we're going to have that shutdown pitcher that we've had in the past," said Tribble, who guided the Bison to a 19-15 mark last year. "Buffalo has always somehow had an exceptional starting pitcher. This year we've got some arms, but we don't have what I call a 'shutdown guy'. It's going to be interesting to see how things play out."

Senior Levi Jordan returns to the hill for the Bison and will also man the shortstop position.  He'll be joined by juniors Bradley Harris (P/3B), Aaron Lewis (P/IF), Blake Caplinger (P/1B) and Laythen Good (P/CF).

Sophomores Beau Whittington (P/IF) and Brandon Buntura (P/OF) will also see time on the mound.

Senior Matt Harrison will take over behind the plate for Buffalo, after a junior season as a utility infielder.

Harrison's play has been a pleasant surprise for Tribble.

"He moved to catcher and has worked his butt off in practice," said Tribble of Harrison. "He might just solidify this baseball team. He's jumped in there and I've been absolutely impressed with him behind the plate."

Senior Garrison Erwin will help provide stability in the outfield.  

Tribble likes the potential that his current team has, but also looks forward to the much needed depth that is working its way through the Buffalo school system.

"The middle school has 35-40 kids out," the Buffalo coach said. "They're loaded up and there's also an absolutely good group of 10-11-12 year old kids coming up as well.

"We don't have depth right now, but I really like what's coming up. Depth is coming back."

Poca - The Dots' late season basketball run left Coach Gene Estel a little short handed when practice began. The Dots are currently working with just 10 players, while awaiting the arrival of hoops players Cam Cottrill, Noah Frampton, Jake Payne and Matt Chandler.

Estel believes the team can improve on last season's (21-13) record once the team is at full strength.

"Right now we're down a little bit, but we expect good things once we get everyone in practice," Estel said. "We've been building the program and we think that some of the pieces are starting to come together.

"We have a really good group of kids that are willing to work hard and be a part of something special."

A junior right-hander, Payne returns to the mound after posting a 1.51 ERA in 51 innings last season. Cottrill, a junior who batted .371 last season, returns to play second base, while sophomores Frampton (.414) and Chandler return to shortstop and third base, respectively.

A trio of seniors will also contribute.

Three-year starting catcher Evan McClanahan returns, as does Ryan Leighton (P/OF) and David Taylor (1B), who missed most of the last two season with shoulder injuries.

Estel was especially pleased to have McClanahan back behind the plate.

"He's our Captain back there running the show," Estel said. "Evan does a great job back there. He runs the show and he's a great senior leader for us."

Junior pitcher Travis Covert will also see action, as will sophomores Skyler Vealey, Brenden Iezzi and Ricci Savilla.

Freshmen expected to contribute are pitchers Donte Barnett, Lucas Marshall and southpaw Brett Watts.

"We're going to just take things a game a time," Estel said. "But we want to win 20 games, win our conference and make it to Power Park and see what happens."

Sissonville - A large contingent of players greeted third-year Coach Kenny Harper as the Indians opened practice.

"I'm well pleased because we have 25 kids out, which is more than we've ever had," Harper said. "We have a big influx of freshmen (12) coming in that are baseball players. They're not just athletes, they're baseball players."

Among those players are seven pitchers that Harper called the "strength" of the team.

Seniors Zach Null and Pat Messinger return to anchor the rotation.

The Indians finished 11-15 last season, with Null notching six of those wins and striking out an area-best 90 batters in 81 1/3 innings worked.

Junior Eli Mooney (61 1/3 innings pitched) returns, as does sophomore J.R. Stricklen, who batted .358 last season.

Sophomore Dominic Walker returns behind the plate, while Houston Hill and Andy Minsker will see action in both the infield and outfield.

Freshmen pitchers Austin Burford, Ethan Lauchart, and Josh Landis will also see time on the mound.

"We have potential, but it just depends on how quickly the team comes together," Harper said. "It could happen right off the bat or it could be midway through the season. I look for us to have a real good season."


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