By Jake Thompson
— With three teams bringing in new coaches, two coaches in their second seasons, one squad trying to recapture its identity, and another going through a youth movement, this Hendricks County baseball season should be full of excitement.
First-year coach John Mlagan comes into Bethesda as the third coach in as many seasons. While the new staff has a combined 30 years of experience on the varsity level, it’s the first they’ve been together. Joining Mlagan are long-time Patriots coaches Bill Hawkins and Lee Martin.
Making the transition a bit more difficult has been the weather.
“We’re facing the same challenges that all of our competitors are facing right now, the weather,” Mlagan said. “We’ve been braving the cold when the rain lets up so we can practice outside.”
Mlagan’s first task was to get the players focused and on track through the coaching change and weather. Improving on the Patriots’ 1-16 record of last season will be next on the list.
However, Bethesda is “expecting big things from our guys this year,” Mlagan said.
The Patriots bring back some offensive firepower they can build around.
Team leaders in batting average, homeruns, and RBI return from last season in senior Brandon Gill (.341) and John Mlagan (6 HR, 10 RBI).
The first-year skipper points to offseason growth as another reason for his optimism.
Senior pitchers Alec Varvel and Nathan Buck have both spent four years on the varsity squad and have improved over the course of the year in an area Bethesda needed help.
“We struggled a bit on the mound last year, but are very optimistic in that area,” Mlagan said. “Buck and Varvel have each gained some impressive velocity and accuracy which will prove to help the Patriots win the (sectional) title. Both have already shown strong leadership in our practices and we’re looking forward to a great season from both of them.”
Defensively, the additions of Eric Poynter and Josh Stroud will help solidify Bethesda’s infield. Junior Aaron Hampton will also play a part defensively. Mlagan also mentioned seniors Gill and Austin Forsythe as two of the Patriots’ “most versatile players.”
Overall, the year is starting on a positive note for Bethesda and Mlagan says he hopes that carries on to the postseason.
“The coaching staff is impressed with how hard these guys are working in practice so far,” Mlagan said. “If their work ethic is any indicator to how the season is going to go, we’ll be very happy with where we end up. We’re hosting our sectional games this season and look forward to winning the title at home.”
Danville made a coaching change in the offseason as first-year man Brady Armstrong replaces long-time skipper Rick Foster. Armstrong helped build Heritage Christian as a varsity assistant from 2003-07.
Taking over a team that went 14-13 last season and took second in the Sagamore Conference, Armstrong certainly has pieces remaining for a good debut and he said he’s been impressed by what he’s seen so far.
“Our kids have been working hard since August,” he said. “We’re just striving to work hard, stay in the moment, and continue to improve throughout the year. Up to this point, our kids have done a great job. They’ve adopted our ‘next pitch’ mentality, and continue to grow through the failures each and every day.”
Junior pitcher DJ Eckert returns to lead the Warriors from the mound where he took all-conference honors last season. He finished last year with five wins, a 1.47 ERA, and 88 strikeouts in 57 innings. Eckert also hit .381 and recorded a team-high 25 RBI.
“He treats all his teammates as equals, leads by example, and is our most talented baseball player who can help you win a game in a variety of ways,” Armstrong said of Eckert.
Sophomore Tyler Bradshaw also contributed some wins from the mound last season and will be counted on again. Bradshaw was named to the Sagamore Conference’s honorable mention team and hit close to .330.
Along with Eckert, Danville seniors Turner Duckett, Alex Bilyeu, and Gary Deaton “are all seniors who will add some toughness and leadership to our baseball program this year as well,” Armstrong said.
Defensively, the Warriors are looking to improve with every opportunity.
“We’re working on each day making routine, routine,” Armstrong said. “Our defense as a whole is unproven, and will be tested throughout this season.”
With some inexperience, the Warriors look to build offensively as well.
Armstrong wants the Warriors to keep the “next pitch” mentality throughout the season as they gel together and does not have any specific goals with regards to county, conference, or the postseason.
“We really don’t have any tangible objectives for this group outside of competing to win a sectional,” Armstrong said.
With a younger squad returning from last season, the Cadets will have to make big strides throughout the season to accomplish their preseason objectives.
“We will be a little inexperienced, but I am excited to see how these younger players develop throughout the season,” Cascade coach Jason Thompson said. “Our goal for our conference every year is to compete for the West Central Conference championship. Our goal for the postseason is to be playing our best baseball, and to compete for a sectional title.”
After finishing with a 14-13 record and being bounced by Covenant Christian in the first round of sectional play, the Cadets are looking to rebound this year and be a bit more consistent.
Losing catcher and all-everything Alex Arthur, the Cadets have some big shoes to fill offensively, defensively, and from a leadership standpoint.
Looking to fill that leadership void are juniors Bailey Blackburn and Sean Bayse. The pair will occupy the top two pitching spots for the Cadets.
Blackburn finished last season with a 4.11 ERA with 31 strikeouts and a 2-2 record while Bayse went 1-2 in his outings with 14 strikeouts.
Sophomores Landon Montgomery and Sawyer Donovan will also see time from the mound this season for the Cadets.
Thompson knows his defense is inexperienced and looks to Donovan (3B), Colin Smith (1B), Schuyler Hart (SS), Casey Fox (OF), and Drew Scott (OT) to take control of the field.
Like the defense, Cascade’s hitting will need to come together throughout the year, as they are also without much experience in the box.
“We’ll have a couple guys that have not seen a whole lot of varsity pitching, so there will be an adjust period,” Thompson said.
Smith hit .305 last season with 15 RBI and 4 doubles, Fox averaged .412 with 6 RBI, and Blackburn went .365 with 11 RBI, giving the Cadets pieces to build around.
Thompson said Cascade’s success all boils down to how fast this young team can come together, along with minimizing the Cadets’ errors.
“The keys for us this season is to be consistent on defense and to get quality outings out of our pitchers,” he said.
Two years removed from one of the most successful campaigns in Avon baseball history, the Orioles took a step back last year. Avon coach Troy Drosche hopes the team can rebound this season and absorb the lessons from last year.
“Our guys learned that we needed to play together as one team and accept a role on the team,” Drosche said. “Last year, we struggled with that concept and had an inconsistent season. With 14 returning players — seven starters and all but 20 innings on the mound — we have really focused on being great teammates and simply enjoying the game of baseball. I feel very good about our team unity to start the season as it’s far better now than it was throughout last season.”
With aspirations to win county, conference, and their sectional, the Orioles must do better than the 13-17 record they posted last season, along with their eighth-place finish in the HCC. Brownsburg ousted the Orioles from the sectional with a dominating 7-1 victory.
“Our goal is to win all of them,” Drosche said of the county, conference, and sectional games. “We feel like we have the experience, depth, and talent to get that done this season.”
Four-year starter Dylan Jones will guide the Orioles from his familiar position behind the plate.
“(Dylan) is a tremendous leader that all the players look up to and respect,” Drosche said.
Throwing to Jones is a slew of quality hurlers including Tasker Strobel (5-4, 3.2 ERA, 36 K), Chandler Sanburn (2-1, 18 K), Brad McCaslin (12 career wins, 3.8 ERA, 32 K), closer Khristian Reynolds (2-0, 1.9 ERA) and relief pitchers Jake Smith, Austin Gossman, Ryan McCaslin, and Chris Howe.
Drosche expects the Orioles’ defense to be strong up the middle with Jones at catcher, Justin Dunham and Reynolds in the middle infield, and Cole Johnson in center. Drosche said right fielder Matt Betustak “is one of the best defensively in the area.”
Getting things going in the box is where the Orioles could begin to put things all together this season.
“If we can get it going offensively on a consistent basis, we could be a dangerous team,” Drosche said. “This is the area where we need to improve the most from last season.”
Jones (.406, 23 RBI), Zach Lebo (.303, 11 RBI), and Dunham (.300) will hit in the middle of the lineup. Returning starters Reynolds, Betustak, and Johnson also should have a significant impact offensively for Avon.
With so many positives moving forward this year, Drosche just hopes the team does not lose focus on what’s important.
“If we can continue to grow as one unit and enjoy playing together, then I like our chances of reaching our goals this season,” he said.
As a varsity assistant in Danville for the past six seasons, new Tri-West coach Ryan Oppy shifted his allegiance to the Warriors’ county and conference rival, the Bruins.
“The transition coming into a new school with new players has been very smooth,” Oppy said. “I would have to thank my new assistant coaches, Bryan Engelbrecht and Dominic Cora, and the players’ willingness to listen and work hard to help make this a smooth transition. The returning players have been working hard every day to make themselves look better. They’ve responded well with the changes they’ve endured so far.”
Helping ease the transition are seniors Levi Baumer, Dustin Burks, Tyler Carter, Ryder Haulk, Jarrod Hough, Matt Pope, Luke Simmons, and Grant Spratt.
“I think all of our eight seniors will be part of our leadership for this team,” Oppy said. “Each senior brings something different to the field with how they lead this group of players.”
Baumer made the all-conference first-team last season, hitting .368 with 25 RBI.
The road to improve upon the Bruins’ season last year (7-17, 4-10 conf.) could be a long one, even with eight seniors.
But for Oppy, it’s all about doing the right things on and off the field that he believes will make the team successful.
“My expectations for this season’s team would be for all of our players to excel in the classroom, represent teamwork, respect one another, have fun, and win sectionals,” he said. “Our county (tournament) is very tough ... I look at our county as a test for our team early in the season. One of my goals in conference is to contend for the title this year. I have great confidence in our players to pursue this goal with all of the hard work they’ve put in so far this season.”
While the Bruins are focused on becoming a better defensive team, Tri-West should do well from the box.
“Our offense this year will be a vital part in our success,” Oppy said. “I believe we’ll have a very deep order with very strong hitters up and down the order. I also think our players coming off of the bench for any game will have a great impact in our order and will not have a drop off in talent.”
Plainfield coach Jeff McKeon’s first year had many twists and turns as the Quakers started 8-4 with wins over teams that went deep into the postseason, but finished with a 1-14 run to end the year. Plainfield also ended with a 2-10 record in the Mid-State Conference.
Like any season with a first-year coach, McKeon learned a lot about his team and vice versa.
“After the first year with the team, I’ve learned what type of character these boys have and how much work they’re willing to put forth,” McKeon said. “The first year of any coach is a feeling out period; the coach is getting to know the players and the players learn about the coach. Now in year two, the players know what to expect from the coaching staff and they know the level of commitment that’s required. All that we’re going through will only make us a stronger program in the future.”
All-conference selection Gabe Burkhardt returns to help lead the Quakers. Burkhardt, a junior, hit .475 last year with 21 RBI and four home runs.
McKeon also pointed to shortstop Alec Caprarella and catcher Hunter Smith as the three teammates that will guide the Quakers on their journey this season.
Left-hander Connor Mitchell and right-hander Justin Martin will hold down the pitching duties for Plainfield. Mitchell led the team in strikeouts (39) last season and fought through some injuries, limiting his production. Martin, a sophomore, is a transfer student from Mooresville who started for the Pioneers as a freshman.
Defensively, the Quakers hope to shore some things up from last year.
“Defense was an area of concern from last year’s squad and there will be an overhaul of most of the infield,” McKeon said.
To remedy the situation, McKeon has moved Caprarella from second to shortstop and Greg Simpson from shortstop to third. With those moves, he hopes to solidify the left side of the infield that “accounted for a majority of our errors last year.”
Plainfield returns two of three outfielders that played pretty solid and Smith will hold down the catcher spot.
Offensively, the Quakers averaged eight runs a game for the first half of the season and McKeon believes that’s where Plainfield’s strength again lies this season.
Burkhardt (.475), Matt Spaulding (.340), Dillon Hughes (.330), and Tyler Garzinski (.364) all had great seasons at the plate.
“Our lineup is shaping up to have balance with power and speed and a good mix of lefties and righties,” McKeon said.
In his first season with Brownsburg last year, coach Eric Mattingly led the Bulldogs to county and sectional titles. Mattingly hopes to build upon that standard this year and would like to improve the squads’ 18-11 record and fourth-place finish in the Hoosier Crossroads Conference (9-9).
All things considered, the transition went smoothly last year and with both the team and Mattingly having a season together, there are greater expectations now.
“Coming into my second year as the head coach, I think the guys have a good understanding of what I’m looking for and the style of baseball that I like to play,” he said. “Last year, we took some knocks early in the year through the transition period, but once the players and I figured each other out, things came together nicely and we made a little run in the tourney.
“I think this year we have the advantage of all the players and coaches being on the same page and hopefully we can skip that transition period and jump right into playing some good baseball.”
Mattingly said he understands that the county tourney is always tough and with an opening round matchup against Avon, anything could happen.
“That’s a big test anytime we step on the field with them,” he said.
Since the county tournament is so early in the year, it will give the Bulldogs some strong competition before heading into their conference schedule.
“Our conference is very tough,” he said. “I would put the level of competition up against any conference in the state and having to play all those teams twice really takes a toll on a pitching staff, but I think we have the depth on the mound this year to have some success.”
After graduating some very successful seniors, the Bulldogs have reloaded this season.
Leading the charge for that group this year is Mike Hartnagel as he returns with the most playing experience, having won two sectional crowns. Mattingly also pointed to catcher Kyle Yeager as a player “that we look to and his relentless work ethic has already gained him the respect of his teammates.”
Rounding out the Bulldogs’ group of senior leaders are Haden Shipman, Garrett Isch, Hunter Leum, and Dalton Carter. All will be leaned on he