KNOX COUNTY – The boys of summer are back.
High school baseball season is heating up in Ohio, and Knox County boasts some of the state’s top talent. The KMAC is loaded once again, as Fredericktown, East Knox and Centerburg all have realistic dreams of a conference title (and a deep tournament run), and Danville’s not far behind. Under first-year head coach Nate Hunt, the new-look Mount Vernon Yellow Jackets will look to make a name for themselves in the competitive OCC.
Each team has different expectations and different questions to answer. This season preview will outline where each county team stands as the season gets underway.
Trojans look to defend district title in 2019
Centerburg won four games in 10 days last May to capture a Div. IV Central District championship. They would eventually fall in the regional semifinals to Reedsville Eastern, 8-3, but head coach Joe Smith had only one word to describe the tournament run: “Awesome.”
“A lot of things clicked into place and we had a great group of seniors, five seniors that all started,” Smith said.
Centerburg started the season 2-6, but then went on a nine-game winning streak in April that turned things around. Smith moved freshman Brock Hurtt into the lineup as a DH, and he ended the year with a .359 batting average, one home run and 14 RBIs in 14 games. The Trojans also received much-needed leadership from their seniors, including four-year starter Trey Purdy, who led the team with a .442 batting average and 25 RBIs.
“We kind of figured some things out, made a couple roster moves and things kind of took off for us,” Smith recalled. “We went into the tournament with the right mindset, right approach, and fortunately played good baseball at the right time. It was just awesome – a really, really fun tournament run where you just felt like, wow, this is different than usual.”
Centerburg also came within a few runs of contending for a KMAC title. Four of the Trojans’ five conference losses came to Highland and Fredericktown, who tied for the KMAC crown. Those losses came by a combined eight runs – they lost to Highland twice, by three, and to Fredericktown twice, by one run each time.
This year, Centerburg will try to get over that hump and compete for a conference title, while also gearing up for another deep tournament run. Smith’s club will be anchored by one of the region’s premier pitchers, senior Jackson Goulter, who earned all-Ohio honors last season. He went 6-3 with a 2.23 ERA last spring, leading the conference with 75 strikeouts. He also got it done at the plate, leading the team (and ranking third in the conference) with an astounding .500 batting average in 100 plate appearances. Goulter led the team in home runs (2) and RBIs (35) last season as well.
The Trojans will also have their No. 2 pitcher back. Senior Brenden Christy, a second-team all-conference player last season, returns after boasting a 1.19 ERA in 2018. Both Christy and Goulter are three-year varsity starters.
“Jackson throws harder, he throws to strike you out. Brenden’s our soft, tough guy that is just out to get you out,” Smith explained. “And they both have a lot of success.”
Several Trojans will be charged with replacing the hitting of last year’s senior class. Those include Hurtt, senior Joel Rings and freshman Dalton Hall, as well as Goulter and Christy.
“We have three of our top five bats back. After that, we’ve got some question marks,” Smith said. “I think we have some bats, but we haven’t proven ourselves yet. I think our defense will be OK… I know our pitching’s going to be solid. I think the other two are going to be good, I just don’t know where we are (hitting-wise) yet.”
Experience aside, Smith says winning the KMAC is always tough. Highland, Fredericktown and East Knox all return the majority of their starters this season. Smith expects the bottom of the conference to be more competitive this year as well. He said his team will need to use the regular season as a primer for the tournament, where the goal is to make another late-season surge.
“Our expectation every year we go to the tournament is we’re going to get to districts somehow,” Smith said, “and at that point, you never know what happens.”
Blue Devils seek improvement amid roster turnover
Despite finishing the regular season with just 10 wins, ranking seventh of eight teams in the KMAC, Danville envisioned a deep tournament run last spring. The Blue Devils were led by three-sport phenom Skyler Durbin, who pitched and caught and did everything in between, earning first-team all-conference honors as a senior.
But their run was cut short in the sectional finals, by a school it had beat in districts two years prior. They fell in a pitcher’s duel to Fisher Catholic, 2-1. Head coach Brian Bratton remembers the frustration of not being able to push the tying run across.
“We had a really good group of seniors that basically had all been starting four years. Just a real good group,” Bratton said. “We were just one or two plays shy of going on.”
This year, Danville will seek deeper postseason success behind the leadership of senior Dylan James, an elite infielder/pitcher who was recently named to Prep Baseball Report’s Div. IV Preseason All-State Team. James recorded two home runs and 15 RBIs last season, while throwing 24 strikeouts on the mound.
“I think he’ll put up for Player of the Year in our league,” Batton said of James. “He’ll definitely be up for D-IV Player of the Year. Very knowledgeable, very smart kid. Very hard worker.”
Danville also welcomes back senior Ethan Hawk, who can play infield and outfield, as well as juniors Zane Risser and Garrin Wills, who “will have to step up this year and throw a lot of innings to cover what we’re missing from last year,” Bratton said.
Underclassmen such as Trever Sturgeon, Preston Brady, Bryce Colopy, Darren Mickley and Wyatt Weckesser will also play major roles on this year’s team. Other than his two seniors, Bratton said the Blue Devils are “a group that (is) very young and inexperienced at the varsity level.”
“It’s going to be a learning curve for those kids,” the ninth-year head coach said. “Our league’s very tough. It’ll be rough for them from the get-go, we just have to weather the storm and keep our heads above water.”
Given the strength of the KMAC this season, Bratton said his team will likely use the regular season to gain experience and prepare for the tournament. The Blue Devils are young, Bratton said, but are already seeing day-to-day improvement.
“When you’re in a league like this, it’s hard to say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to win the league.’ From top to bottom it’s tough,” Bratton said. “So we use these games to push each other and make a run in the tournament.”
Bulldogs eye KMAC title after sour 2018 finish
East Knox came within one game of tying Highland and Fredericktown for a KMAC title last spring.
The Bulldogs suffered two crucial losses in their final five conference games, to Centerburg and Fredericktown, both by one run. They proceeded to fall in their first tournament game to Johnstown, 2-0, cutting short a promising season.
This year, nearly the whole team is back.
East Knox graduated Ethan Beckett, the school’s all-time save leader and third-baseman, who hit .307 and recorded 17 RBIs last year. The Bulldogs return everyone else. That includes the entire pitching staff, with starters Cade Leach and Nate Friel, who anchored the 2018 team.
“Last year, (in) our first nine wins we had eight different starting pitchers that won a game,” head coach Randy Baugher said, “and they’re all back.”
But the hitting – particularly against No. 1 pitchers – is what East Knox will look to improve on this season. Last year, all four of the team’s losses came to their opponents' No. 1 pitchers, including Highland’s Mack Anglin and Fredericktown’s Nick Cunningham, who shared ‘KMAC Player of the Year’ honors. Baugher said the Bulldogs are focused on cracking the code at the plate this season.
“We know that we have probably more starters back than anybody. And you would think, ‘Wow, they’re going to be the favorite.’ We also know that the three pitchers who beat us in the league last year are all back – Mack Anglin at Highland, Nick Cunningham at Fredericktown, and Jackson Goulter from Centerburg. They’re really good players,” Baugher said.
“That’s why it’s all in our mind, we have to learn how to beat people’s No. 1s if we’re going to win the league or we’re going to go anywhere in the tournament.”
East Knox will rely on a talented bunch of upperclassmen to turn the tide at the plate this year. That includes senior left fielder Kasson Krownapple, who hit .365 with 30 RBIs last year and earned second-team all-KMAC honors. Junior first baseman Dawson David returns as well, after boasting a .425 batting average and 26 RBIs last year. Junior Caleb Gallwitz, named first-team all-conference last spring, hit .368 and “is one of the area’s fastest players,” according to Baugher.
Kadden Lester, the school’s quarterback, will lead the team at catcher. Baugher called him “a coach on the field” because of his leadership. He also possesses the all-important clutch gene, which could help push East Knox to the next level this season; he led the team in two-out RBIs last season with 14.
“It’s a great bunch of kids, we have so much fun. That’s the good thing about coaching here,” Baugher said of the team, which includes a junior class filled with three-year starters. “But I think experience has to help us because they’ve all played lots of ball.”
Behind a wealth of talent and experience, East Knox will aim for a conference crown and a tournament run this spring. The group has won 43 games over the last two seasons, but has not made it out of districts. If the Bulldogs have their way, this could be the year that changes.
“I just hope they win something that they’ll remember,” Baugher said. “That’s our goal.”
Cunningham, Freddies seek state run in 2019
Fredericktown won a share of the KMAC crown last season and captured its second consecutive district title. But this year, the Freddies want more.
“(We’re) kind of hoping that we take that next step,” fourth-year head coach Ryan Hathaway said. “We’ve been there twice now, so it’s like, let’s get past it, see what happens if we can get to a regional final or a state final four or something like that. That’s what we’re shooting for.”
The Freddies have lost twice in a row in the regional semifinals, but Hathaway believes they have the talent this year to make a state run. They will certainly have the pitching; Nick Cunningham, the 2018 KMAC Co-Player of the Year, is back for his senior year. Cunningham went 6-0 with a 1.16 ERA last season (lowest in the KMAC).
“He’s played a lot of baseball and we put a lot of trust in him, as far as being our guy on the mound that we go to,” Hathaway said. “And that’s been his role now for the last, you know, three years that he’s been here. (In) big games, he’s the one that we want with the ball.”
Fredericktown’s ace will be accompanied by an experienced hitting lineup, which includes unrelated senior Clem Cunningham, who hit .393 at shortstop last season. Sophomore Caleb Sheriff is back after earning first-team all-KMAC honors his freshman season – he led the conference with a .464 batting average and also tallied 29 RBIs. Nick Cunningham is solid at the plate as well – he hit .413 with 21 RBIs and 24 runs last spring.
The Freddies graduated several key pieces from last year’s roster, however. They’ll miss Leighton Cunningham, who bat lead-off and hit .423. Brad Wolford hit .500 as a senior, and Trace Owens also contributed quality at-bats.
“They will be difficult to replace with our guys, but I think that we’ve got guys in positions that can hopefully step into those roles and live up to the same sort of things that they did last year,” Hathaway said.
Before the postseason rolls around, Fredericktown will focus on winning its second straight KMAC title. The Freddies split with co-champ Highland last year, as each team beat the other by three runs. Those two will face each other on April 11 (at Highland) and April 12 (at Fredericktown) this spring, and the conference title could very well hinge on those matchups.
East Knox and Centerburg will serve as fierce KMAC competitors for Fredericktown as well, as both squads have a solid contingent back.
If the Freddies can stay healthy through KMAC play, Hathaway believes his team has a shot at making history in the tournament. Fredericktown has only reached the state final four once – in 2012 – and this year's team will look to make it back.
“I think they’re hungry to get back there and kind of prove that we belonged, or can take that next step,” Hathaway said. “That’s kind of what they’re after is just taking that next step, at least getting to a regional and seeing what happens.”
Jackets begin new era under first-year head coach Nate Hunt
Simply put, Mount Vernon baseball will look completely different in 2019. All six of the Yellow Jackets’ all-conference players from last season have graduated. Rob Gross, the coach who led Mount Vernon to an OCC title in 2017, has stepped down.
This year, first-year head coach Nate Hunt and upperclassmen such as Noah Gleason, Carson Carpenter and Jaxon Snyder will look to write a new chapter in the program’s storied history. The team may look different, but the goal is still the same: win an OCC championship.
“I’m an optimistic coach in believing that we can win this conference,” said Hunt, who served as an assistant for three years before becoming the head coach. “And that’s these seniors’ goal. These seniors’ goal is that they want to win the conference.”
It won’t be easy. Last year’s senior class, which led Mount Vernon to a third-place conference finish and a 16-10 overall record, was loaded with talent. Isaac Stallard hit .350 and recorded 13 RBIs; he’s currently playing for Malone University. Nate Orr, a fellow first-team all-conference selection, is playing at Mount Union. He led the team in batting average (.446) and RBIs (28). Ashton Spurgeon, who bat .281, now plays for Mississippi Valley State.
There were seniors who went on to play other sports in college, too. The Yellow Jackets’ No. 1 pitcher, Connor Curry (5-3, 3.34 ERA), is playing golf at Malone. Marcus Shellenbarger, who hit .322 with two home runs and 23 RBIs, started at defensive end for D-II Walsh University’s football team last fall.
“We had a lot of talented guys,” Hunt said. “And it’s just one of the things I’m trying to harp (on) the guys this year is, tournament time, I actually compared it to March Madness. The best team doesn’t always win, it’s the team that plays the best that day.”
The Jackets will turn to a solid senior class to carry the torch this season. That starts with Gleason, the team’s No. 2 pitcher last season, who will be asked to headline this year’s staff. Gleason recorded a 1.75 ERA last spring in 32 innings. He had a 4-1 record and led the team in strikeouts with 36.
“He’s definitely taken that No. 1 role and he’s ran with it. He’s a natural,” Hunt said of Gleason, who has verbally committed to Mount Vernon Nazarene University. “We always tell the guys, there’s two types of leaders, vocal and lead-by-example, and Noah happens to be both… He’s going to be a great No. 1 for us. He’s the one that asks for the ball.”
Carpenter will be back healthy this year, which excites Hunt. Carpenter was the team’s hit leader through 10 games, Hunt said, before an injury ended his junior season early.
“He’s going to be in that lead-off spot for us,” Hunt said. “He’s going to do some pitching.”
Hunt said this year's team is focused on eliminating costly fielding errors, which cost the Yellow Jackets in 2018. Hunt expects Snyder, a senior who started every game at shortstop for Mount Vernon last season, to be “the leader of the infield.”
At the plate, Mount Vernon will look to manufacture runs via “small-ball,” a tactic Hunt learned during his playing days at Muskingum University.
“We’re going to bunt, we’re going to be a small-ball team. But at the same time, we have some guys that can hit it,” Hunt said. “So I think that identity of playing small ball – you know, we’re really fast. We’ve got some fast kids. Just that element of baseball of hit-and-run, stealing bags, being really aggressive, is kind of who we’re trying to be.”
Mount Vernon finished 7-5 in the OCC last year, one game behind Wooster and four games behind champion Lexington. Hunt predicts the usual suspects will populate the top of the conference this year, and his team will look to contend every step of the way.
“We’re not going to hit 20 home runs,” Hunt said, “but we are going to steal as many bags as possible and we’re going to challenge other teams and say, ‘This is what we’re good at, try and stop us.’”