Prep baseball: Expectations still high for Nitro
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The boys are back in town, minus the graduation of perhaps the state's best player last year, though the Nitro baseball team will once again represent the Kanawha Valley's "team to beat."
The Wildcats lost just one senior in standout and reigning Player of the Year Korey Dunbar, and return the rest with eyes set on reaching the state title game after losing 7-4 to Princeton last season in the championship to finish 27-11.
"Everybody knows the expectations and how we do things, and so that can only go to help," Coach Steve Pritchard said of his veteran bunch.
Junior first baseman Dylan Slack will look to provide a bulk of the team's power and run production. Last season, Slack was a second team All-Kanawha Valley selection after hitting .410 with 40 RBI and nine doubles.
"He should be one of the better hitters in the area," Pritchard said. "We're going to rely on him a lot."
Seniors Evan Eich (2B), Eric Keller (3B) and Ethan Clark (CF) return in leadership roles, too. Freshman Matt Jewell will start at catcher, with junior Solomon Shamblin at shortstop.
Junior Tyler Barton will play left field and sophomore Kip Brewer right field when not pitching, Pritchard said.
Barton, a right-hander, throws a cut fastball and changeup, while Brewer is a left-handed pitcher known for his off-speed pitches and location.
Freshmen Jake Bradley, Matt Harrison, Eddie Flores and Jake Williams will also provide innings on the mound.
Meanwhile, junior Ryan McDonough will be one of the team's top arms and bats, though his position will rotate depending on who's pitching, Pritchard said.
"He'll come to the ballpark with a lot of different gloves," he said.
With so much talent returning, it's no secret the opposition will be gunning for Nitro.
"We're going to see everybody's best pitcher, we're going to see everybody's best effort, which only makes you better," Pritchard said.
Nitro's not the only area team entering the season with optimism, though, as talent abounds throughout the Kanawha Valley.
Here's a look at other Class AAA programs in the Kanawha Valley:
Hurricane - The Redskins once again will be among the Valley's top teams this season.
Despite the graduation of pitcher Drew Lawrence, pitching expects to rank among the Redskins' strengths after finishing 27-6 last year.
Senior Riley Metz, junior Austin Hensley and sophomore J.T. Rogoszewski return as the team's top arms.
"I think any time you return a little bit of experience on the mound it's comforting," Coach Brian Sutphin said.
In 2012, Hensley finished 6-0 with a 2.06 ERA, including 40 strikeouts in 51 innings pitched.
At the plate, Metz gained first team All-Kanawha Valley honors with a .390 batting average, 20 RBI and 19 walks. He is expected to sign with Lenoir-Rhyne University (N.C.), Sutphin said.
Senior catcher Connor Adams, sophomore shortstop Trey Dawson, sophomore Tate Brock and second baseman Alex Estep are also expected to make large contributions. As a freshman, Brock led Hurricane in home runs and RBI, Sutphin said.
Winfield - Senior Mason Dillon enters the season as one of the state's top returning pitchers.
Dillon, a first-team All-Kanawha Valley selection last season, finished 9-1 with a 1.60 ERA, including 61 strikeouts in 74 innings pitched.
Even without graduated starters Dusty Kincaid and Connor Chapman, Winfield expects to have a solid pitching rotation behind Dillon and cast.
"I think he's comfortable being the No. 1," Coach Will Isaacs said of Dillon. "He knows our team's relying on him, and when he goes on the mound he gives us a good chance to win."
Senior right-hander Zach Strong will join the pitching staff after injuring the labrum in his throwing shoulder. Strong had 19 strikeouts in 13 innings before suffering his injury last season.
In addition, seniors Dana Harper and Josh Bumgarner will provide key innings on the mound.
George Washington - After graduating five seniors from last year's 17-14 squad, youth could lead the Patriots this year.
"A lot is going to depend on this sophomore class," GW Coach Chad Campbell said. "There's five, six or seven of those guys who are really going to contribute this year, and it's going to be up to them."
Among those sophomores are Garrett Vogelbach, Conner Moffatt, Clayton Anderson and Jeff Wong.
Wong and Anderson will work as two of the team's top pitchers, along with junior Tanner Sorrells, who returns after breaking his arm last season. Left-hander John Thomas, a transfer from Florida, joins the team and will play center field in addition to pitcher. Freshman Austin Henrich will also see time on the mound, Campbell said.
Seniors Jacob Whitlock and Robbie Mounts, along with junior Austin Griffith will also factor among the Patriots' expected key contributors.
Capital - The Cougars return eight juniors who started for last season's squad that finished 11-22.
"We've got a lot of kids who are back that have put in the time, and hopefully the results will prove that," Coach Robert Massey said.
This year's team features no seniors, and instead will be led by juniors Justin Palmer and Seth Roadcap. Both will hit in the middle of the lineup and occasionally pitch, Massey said, as Roadcap primarily catches and Palmer plays shortstop.
Last season, Palmer finished with a .379 batting average and 18 RBI as a second team All-Kanawha Valley selection.
Jacob Williams (OF) and Kaleb Kinder (1B) should be two of the team's top pitchers when not occupying their other positions, though Massey said he plans to utilize several arms this season.
Around the horn, junior Austin Hupp will play second base, with Anthony Gavin at third. Trenton Campbell will play outfield, while Jordan Bray is also expected to help as a pitcher.
Riverside - The Warriors return to action poised to build upon the program's winningest season ever.
Riverside returns the team's top two pitchers in senior Tyler Hall and junior Cameron Norris from last year's squad that finished 20-16, ultimately losing to Princeton in the regional final.
In addition to Hall and Norris, sophomore Brady Wilkinson returns as the team's top strikeout pitcher.
"He mixes it up really well and he's got a really good command of all his pitches," Coach Chris Hawkins said. "He throws a fastball, curveball and changeup, and he's comfortable throwing them in any count."
Offensively, Hall, Trevor Rumberg (CF/C) and Aaron Halstead (RF) return as the team's top hitters.
"As far as middle of the lineup, we've got three guys back that were .350 or better hitters last year," Hawkins said. "All three of those guys are seniors, they'll hit in the middle of the lineup probably three, four, five."
St. Albans - The Red Dragons graduated eight players from last year's team that finished 24-7.
"We've got six seniors, but they don't have a lot of experience," Coach Rick Whitman said. "They were sitting and waiting behind that senior class that we had last year."
With so many departed players, Whitman said the team will look to fill its defensive holes.
"Our defense, honestly, we lost a lot of good players from last year, so there's some big shoes to fill," he said. "We're filling out the whole left side of the infield, pitcher and center fielder."
Returning starters Joey Doddrill (1B), Dustin Turley (2B) and Josh Burks (C/DH) will look to lead St. Albans, joined by seniors Austin Harless (3B/P) and Phoenix Shrewsbury (IF/OF/P), Whitman said.
South Charleston - Youth lines the roster this season following the graduation of six senior starters led by former center fielder Rease Ripley.
"This year is a young bunch," Coach Ken Samms said.
Starting pitcher Jared Jobst will be the Black Eagles' No. 1 pitcher, while catcher Jonathan Cline returns as the team's top hitter.
"He'll be my main guy," Samms said of Jobst, "and hopefully, we can get him some runs, and with Cline swinging the bat we can have a good year."
Sophomore Austin Santrock will primarily play shortstop, but serve as the team's No. 2 pitcher, too. Fellow sophomores Jonathan Pauley and Antonio Brown will also be among SC's expected top performers.
With such a young lineup, Samms said keeping the right mindset will be pivotal for the Black Eagles.