Trojans build on power
Baseball is different from other sports; its practices feature a unique cadence.
Among the thwack of balls landing in leather gloves and light ping of a bat connecting for grounders, there were plenty of juvenile jokes flying through the air at the Hillsboro High School baseball practice on Thursday.
Seniors Kale Arnold and Josh Davidson were both manning first base during a drill. It involved pitchers sprinting from the mound to field throws from the first baseman receiving grounders. Anytime a Hillsboro pitcher muffed a toss, Arnold would remark, “You shouldn’t have eaten that popcorn. Everyone has butter in their gloves.”
The drill also involved prospective outfielders running to first to simulate the bang-bang play. One of those outfielders was Caleb Bettles. After one round of the drill, head coach Doug Dick asked Bettles if he was running at 100 percent.
“It was about 98.5,” Bettles responded.
“Not 99, not 98.6, 98.5,” Arnold reflected.
Dick stopped the drill for a moment to enjoy this colorful quote from one of his players.
“Ninety-eight point five, is that a radio station Bettles?” Dick said.
“That’s the quote of the year,” Davidson remarked.
There is a flipside to the lighthearted nature of the game. The reason Dick accepts this silliness is because confidence is an important component of the game.
Any player, no matter how athletically gifted, can suffer a slump at the plate or in the field. Part of the coach’s job is to make sure players are not thinking too much, to get them out of their own heads.
One example of this was senior Lucas Sinclair last season. Dick said Sinclair’s work ethic never wavered last season yet he struggled at the plate.
One change this year is that Sinclair should have a solid place on the diamond. He was a pitcher, catcher, infielder, and outfielder last season. At this point in early practices, Dick does not have another catcher he would trust behind the plate to start the season. He said it is a position Sinclair has grown to love.
“That’s part of being a catcher, you have to like it because you will take some abuse,” Dick said. “He’s filling the role he has to play.”
With an established position, Dick hopes Sinclair will take comfort in the field and apply it at the plate.
Comfort is a part of establishing confidence. This is the second year Aaron Stepanek will serve as an assistant coach for the Trojans. Dick said he will give Stepanek more freedom to work with players on his own.
The Trojans should take comfort that they have a team that fits the mold of historic Hillsboro clubs with power hitting and pitching. The foundation of the lineup is seniors Nathan Unruh and Arnold in the middle of the order with Sinclair possibly hitting in front of them in the three or two hole.
Unruh developed into a doubles machine last year, blasting line drives to all fields. He will again man third base for the Trojans.
“I think he’ll just keep getting better,” Dick said.
Arnold’s work with the bat nearly matched his prowess on the mound as one of Hillsboro’s RBI producers. Whenever he is not pitching, he will play first base.
Dick hopes to have Arnold pitching as often as his arm will allow. Arnold developed into Hillsboro’s clear ace last year with a dynamic fastball, curve ball selection and a workhorse mentality — he tended to get stronger as games dipped into later innings.
Three newcomers should round out Hillsboro’s pitching staff. Davidson is one of the new hurlers. When not on the mound, Davidson could play first or one of the corner outfield spots. His strength could be an asset in the Hillsboro lineup.
“He’s a good kid,” Dick said.
Freshmen Austin Cross and Dylan Nelson are two intriguing prospects. Cross uses exceptional height, at about 6-foot-4, to create velocity and movement on his pitches. Cross could also see time at first, in the outfield, or at shortstop.
“He’s not built like a freshman,” Dick said.
Nelson has a tendency to sprinkle at bats with more off speed deliveries. Dick said Nelson has shined in summer league performances. Nelson is another outfield candidate.
The Trojans have two established outfielders with sophomores Micah Allen and Jakob Hanschu, either of whom could play center field. In limited playing time last year, both players showed prowess with the bat and the glove. Hanschu is an intriguing player for Dick with the ability to pitch and play second and short.
Other outfielders battling for a starting position are sophomores Josh Funk and Bettles and freshman Jonah Wiles.
Up the middle, the Trojans are starting with a deficit. Last year’s starting shortstop Cody Delk is out for the season with an arm injury. The likely player to take over at short is Jordan Faul. Like Sinclair, Faul struggled with the stick last season after a strong freshman campaign.
Dick is looking for a bounce back season from the junior infielder. He does not worry much about Faul in the field. Faul makes up for a lack of lateral quickness by playing smooth, efficiently getting to the ball and transitioning from glove to hand to release a throw.
David Dick is the likely candidate to start at second base, a position he played often last season. The sophomore infielder is one of many players who could lead off for the Trojans, including Faul, Hanschu, Allen, and Funk.
“We’re not going to be blessed with overall team speed,” Dick said.
With a small roster, 13 players, the Trojans will have to be diverse as a team, especially in case of injury.
The Trojans begin the season March 28 at Little River. It will be a tough opening test with the Redskins’ unnerving modified softball field, which often features a wind blowing out to outfield.
The first home contest will be with Nickerson on April 2. One opponent Dick has circled on the calendar is Pratt. The Greenbacks went to the 4A state tournament last season.
“Anybody in our league is beatable, sweepable on some nights, or we can get swept,” Dick said. “We have to come with our best in these games.”