BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – To say high school baseball expectations are high in Howard County would be an understatement. Expectations are Indy or bust as three local squads were ranked in their respective top six in the coaches’ preseason polls. And one – the Western Panthers – are not only the defending state Class 3A champions, they are perched as the top team in the 3A rankings.
Head coach: Ty Calloway (36th season, 640-304)
2012 season: 25-9, IHSAA Class 3A State Champions
Preseason ranking: Class 3A No. 1 (five of six first place votes)
With 13 returning varsity players – including its top three pitchers – Panther Nation is excited for the upcoming high school baseball season.
“This kids we have coming back are excited; they are motivated,” said Western head coach Ty Calloway. “We have a long way to go, but they are ready to play. We are looking forward to the season.”
One year after winning the programs first state title, championship game winning pitcher and seniors Ronnie Smith (University of Alabama at Birmingham) and Cameron Kuntz join junior Evan Warden in one of the most talented staffs in the state. Smith returns as the No. 1 starter after a 9-5 season (2.34 ERA), while Kuntz was 5-1 (1.69) and Warden closed strong to post a 4-1 record (1.59).
“We have a solid pitching staff coming back,” said Calloway. “That is an area I don’t worry about, although we will need to decide who our other three or four pitchers will be.”
On offense, Heartland Community College recruit and Indiana All-Star candidate Marcus Pingleton returns his 10 home runs to the lineup. He will also lead the defense in centerfield.
Indiana Tech recruit Nathan Kirk will play first and see time on the hill, senior Dakota LaMott will cover second, Warden will play short and junior Drew Bellus will be at third as well as get time behind the plate. Joining Pingleton in the outfield will be seniors Mitchell Shahan and Austin Dukes and junior Devon Eaker. In addition, junior Cameron Herr will catch, senior Kyle Mendenhall will pitch and play some outfield and sophomore Austin Weaver will pitch and play infield.
Calloway cautioned the team will take one game at a time and will not look towards June too early.
“We are really excited about the upcoming season. The players are working extremely hard. We want very badly to experience the same success as last year,” said Calloway. “We want to reclaim the (Mid-Indiana Conference title) and go from there.”
Head coach: Tim Weeks (3rd season, 27-32)
2012 season: 13-16
Preseason ranking: Class 4A No. 6
The Wildkats enter the season with what they consider one of the best pitching staffs they have assembled in years. And considering the program currently has two players pitching on professional baseball mounds, that is saying something.
“The sky is the limit, but baseball can be a funny sport,” said Kokomo head coach Tim Weeks. “The best teams don’t always win, but I think we have looked really good in pre-season workouts. They are focused and hungry.”
Leading the way for Kokomo will be University of Arkansas recruit Parker Sanburn, who was 3-4 last year with a 4.95 ERA. Sanburn has a lively fastball, which helped him tally 85 strikeouts in 41 innings. Senior Jake McMain (Franklin College) will be the No. 2 starter while Draw Sale and Chase Hatfield will battle for the third starting spot. Preston Emmons returns to catch the pitching staff.
“Everyone knows we start with Parker Sanburn and he has a lot of potential. We expect him to go out there 10 or 12 times this year and we expect him to win,” said Weeks. “McMain was our closer last year but will start this year, and he throws very hard and has some good off-speed stuff.”
McMain is also the leading offensive threat for the Kats after batting .429 (second best in Howard County) with 15 RBIs last season while playing first base. Fellow Franklin College recruit Cody Shipley returns a .324 batting average at second base, Goshen College recruit Eli Grimes batted .333 a year ago and will play shortstop and Sale hit .358 and will play third.
The outfield will consist of Hatfield in left, Jesse Broomfield in center and Drew Guge in right. Bo Baker and Isaac Turner will also see time in the field.
Head coach: Brent Owens (3rd season, 43-17)
2012 season: 16-12
Preseason ranking: Class 2A No. 5
Two years ago, the Titans found themselves in the Class 2A Final Four, and many of the players on this squad were around for that memorable run – including three starters. This year, they want a return trip – and more.
“I really like the senior leadership that I have seen in the open gyms we have conducted,” said Taylor head coach Brent Owens. “I want to get our 2013 team to look more like our 2011 team in terms of 20-plus wins and another deep run into the state tournament.”
Leading the way will be All-Mid-Indiana Conference performer Logan Barnes – a key member of the 2011 Final Four squad. Last year the shortstop batted .443 with seven doubles, four triples, two home runs and 10 stolen bases. On the mound he pitched 30 innings and tallied a 2.31 ERA with 23 strikeouts, 13 walks and 27 hits.
The second starter from the Final Four team is third baseman Drew Hansen, a second team all-MIC performer. He hit .362 with five doubles, three triples and team leading 19 RBIs and five stolen bases. He also pitched 27 innings and garnered a 2.33 ERA with 21 strikeouts and 14 walks. The third Final Four starter was catcher Trevor Marler, another second team all-MIC player who hit .305 and had a contact percentage of .940.
Owens said Nick Hoover will see time on the hill after striking out 34 hitters in 42 innings a year ago. He also cited Tyler Gatlin at first base after a freshman season in which he belted six home runs and drove in 18 RBIs with a .293 batting average. He also had a fielding percentage of .957.
Head coach: Mike Brazel (2nd season, 17-8)
2012 season: 17-8
Preseason ranking: None
While not ranked in the pre-season, Northwestern head coach Mike Brazel thinks the Purple Tigers could find success if they can find one key ingredient – a No. 1 pitcher.
“Our season will hinge on how quickly we can find a number one pitcher and nail down the bullpen,” said Brazel. “We will also need to find a catcher to replace Tanner Martin. Both will be keys to our season. We have adequate depth in the infield and outfield. Several players will vie for playing time and make practices very competitive.”
Vying for time on the hill will be Conner Milligan (3-0, 2.36 ERA and thee saves), Trevor Richmond (4-2), James Herrington (2-1, 3.16 in a relief role), Austin Bowley, Austin Pyle and Logan Macaluso.
In the field and at the plate, Mr. Everything Trenton Brazel should lead the squad while playing shortstop. A year ago, he batted a solid .380, and after the season he will take his athletic talents to Wabash College to play football and basketball.
Brazel also cited to Milligan at first base (.345 batting average), Richmond at first and third (.313), Kristian Simmons at second, Craten Brown in center (11 RBIs), Keagan Downey as a utility player (.316), Erick Vas in the outfield and Michael Plummer in the infield. Evan Matlock is the potential starting catcher.
Head coach: Nick Sale (2nd season, 13-15)
2012 season: 13-15
Preseason ranking: None
Second year coach Nick Sale is excited about this years Comet squad, especially since he has several returning players. In fact, he is optimistic the squad should be competitive when it comes to the Mid-Indiana Conference and during tournament play.
“This season provides a lot of promise with eight returning varsity starters,” said Sale. “In addition, we have two key returning pitchers in (sophomores) Caleb Aaron and Kerrigan Forgrave.
Other key players returning to the Comets lineup include seniors Connor Young, Hayden Vint, Josh Keith and Ryan Lindsay; juniors Braden Gibson and Austin Chase and sophomore Cree Johnston. He will also look to senior Austin Forgrave and sophomore Alex Downing to provide key pieces to the puzzle.
“We have a strong group of seniors that we look to lean on for leadership and provide necessary experience to compete for MIC and sectional championships,” said Sale. “This year’s team is built on our pitching and defense and our season success will be dependent on how well we execute the routine plays.”
(WIOU Sports Director Chris Lowry and the Kokomo Herald contributed to this story)