Posted Online: March 24, 2014, 7:48 pm
Panthers look to build on last year's run
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By Terry Duckett, firstname.lastname@example.org
For the second time in three seasons, the Erie-Prophetstown baseball co-op got to hoist a piece of postseason hardware.
Now, the reigning Three Rivers Conference co-champion Panthers look to take the next leap forward as they seek to revisit the program's peak season of 2011 when E-P scored bronze in its Class 2A state tournament debut appearance.
"Expectations are high," said E-P coach Jason Orman. "This is the year everyone has been pointing to as a special one. Last year, this group learned how to win a lot of close games and showed a lot of toughness. From what I've seen, they've only gotten better."
Orman has his goals set down clearly for the program.
"My expectations for 2014 are to compete for the conference title and to stay alive in the postseason for as long as possible," he said. "Our coaching staff, from top to bottom, has the same goals. The trick is to get our players to buy in to what it takes to attain those lofty goals."
Granted, Erie-Prophetstown did take a hit from graduation, losing such top-flight performers as Zach Hart, Brandon McCullough, Carter Ames and Zach Inskeep, and Orman points to a younger outfield's quick maturation as a key to success.
But a bigger key is the return of the entire starting infield and the bulk of the pitching staff from last spring's 18-10 club that ended up sharing the TRAC-9 title with Morrison.
"We're going to be deep with our defense and pitching,'' Orman said, "and we are going to come ready to play every day. I'm not worried about that."
Anchoring the mound corps is the senior duo of Kenneth Cole (5-1, 1.64 ERA, 61 strikeouts) and Ethan Howard, who finished 6-3 last spring with 76 strikeouts. They join classmates and infielders Owen McConnell (eight doubles, four homers, 21 RBIs) and Kyle Coleman and sophomore shortstop Jordan Chandler (.412, 19 RBIs) as returning All-Conference standouts.
"I believe we have the ability to compete in our league and against a strong nonconference schedule," said Orman.
By contrast, Morrison (15-6) looks to add to its ongoing run of having won or shared six straight Three Rivers titles with a 2014 roster somewhat lighter on experience. Only two seniors — pitcher/first baseman Bill Lee Greul (5-2, 1.69 ERA, 79 Ks; .315, five doubles, 23 RBIs) and second baseman/outfielder Kollin Burn — anchor a group of five returning Mustangs.
But after splitting two regular-season meetings with E-P in '13 before falling 1-0 to the Panthers in a 2A regional final on its home diamond, Morrison is looking to deny its rival one of its 2014 goals.
"There's always a nice rivalry with them," said Mustangs' coach Ben Sondgeroth, "and I think our guys understand that winning conference is a big deal here and that they have to work their hardest to maintain that (streak)."
However, Sondgeroth is also aware that this year's stable of Mustangs is running a little younger than in past years, as graduated standouts such as shortstop Danny Willis (.373, five doubles, 20 RBIs, 27 runs) will be tough to replace.
"A lot of new kids have to step up to keep the program where it's at," he said.
Looking to make their case as a Three Rivers North contender is Fulton (12-15), which made nice strides last spring and returns a solid nucleus led by senior pitcher/shortstop Ethan Jones (5-3, 2.02 ERA, .264, 15 RBIs) and senior first baseman Cody Huff (.412), although the loss of outfielder Colin Tichler and his .455 average hurts the Steamers offensively.
"If our pitchers throw strikes and our defense can take care of them, we hope to build off last year's success," said Fulton coach Kyle Miller.
Meantime, Riverdale (6-13) looks to return to the league's upper echelon behind the senior nucleus of pitcher/third baseman Nathan Rocker and pitcher/outfielder Jason Hoehn as well as sophomore pitcher/shortstop Josh Lohman.
"Josh played a vital role for us as a freshman last year, and he's really done a nice job helping the younger guys out and getting them ready for varsity ball," said Riverdale coach Brian Krier. "And Nathan has really taken the role of leading the team; right now, we're really looking at anybody not a freshman to help the team band together."
Three Rivers North baseball
Coach: Jason Orman (13th year)
2013: 18-10 (12-2 Three Rivers, co-champs with Morrison), lost 7-1 to Oregon in the Class 2A Byron Sectional semifinals
Returning letterwinners — Srs.: Ken Cole (1B/P), Ethan Howard (P/IF), Owen McConnell (1B/DH), Kyle Coleman (3B), Austin Meadows (SS/2B), Austin Gerlach (OF/1B), Adam Hayes (P/OF), Koby Kuhnen (OF), Seth Cady (OF), Dalton Patton (OF/C). So.: Jordan Chandler (SS/P).
Newcomers — Jrs.: Kallen Jepsen (P/OF/IF), Evan Cooper (P/3B). So.: Grady Todd (C).
Coach: Kyle Miller (first year; two combined seasons at Fulton)
2013: 12-15 (8-6 Three Rivers), lost 5-3 to Morrison in the Class 2A Morrison Regional semifinals
Returning letterwinners — Srs.: Ethan Jones (P/SS), Cody Huff (1B/P), Jack Reed (CF), Paul Velasco (C/1B/DH). Jr.: Seth Sanderson (IF). So.: Devin Ballard (3B/P)
Newcomers — Jrs.: Colin Houzenga (RF), Lucas Wiebenga (LF), Jake VanZuiden (C/1B/DH), Tanner Huizenga (OF). So.: Jack Lemke (IF/P), Michael Dixon (P/OF), Trey Simmons (2B0, Jason Ryder (P/IF). Fr.: Tyler Swennie (C)
Coach: Ben Sondgeroth (fourth year)
2013: 15-6 (12-2 Three Rivers, co-champs with Erie-Prophetstown), lost 1-0 to Erie-Prophetstown in the Class 2A Morrison Regional finals
Returning letterwinners — Srs.: Bill Lee Greul (P/1B), Kollin Burn (2B/OF). Jrs.: Tristan Houzenga (OF/C), Mason Sitzmore (SS/P). So.: Joey Brackemyer (P/OF)
Newcomers — Jr.: Brock Smith (3B). So.: Justin Jensen (C), Andy Bird (OF), Ryan VanZuiden (1B/P), Ben Tegeler (IF)
Coach: Brian Krier (fourth year)
2013: 6-13 (4-10 Three Rivers), lost 12-2 to Erie-Prophetstown in the Class 2A Morrison Regional semifinals
Returning letterwinners — Srs.: Jason Hoehn (P/CF), Nathan Rocker (P/3B). Jr.: Nolan Milroy (SS). So.: Josh Lohman (P/SS), Bret Saathoff (2B/OF)
Newcomers — Sr.: Cameron Rogers (OF). Jr.: Cole Ebenroth (Utility). Fr.: Keaton Smeltzly (C/IF), Dylan Rose (1B/OF), Allen Pratt (OF), Brady Secrist (Utility), Elliot Angel (OF), Trey DeMeyer (OF)