Contenders crowd local baseball landscape


Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Heritage Hills shortstop Tirey Burch will help lead a Patriot squad angling for its first sectional championship since 1997. The Patriots are part of a competitive area baseball scene as Jasper is coming off a run to the state finals, Southridge returns talent from a team that reached the sectional championship, Forest Park has nine seniors back from a 24-win team and Northeast Dubois is a defending sectional champ.

Herald Sports Editor

Before Jasper’s reigning Class 3A state runner-up baseball squad has even played a game this season, the hits have already come in bunches. And not the good kind.

The Wildcats learned Tuesday they’ll be without Spencer Sapp, the Indiana University signee who hit nearly .400 and got better as he went a year ago, amassing a 12-3 mark during a 30-6 season that ended with a 6-1 defeat to Andrean in the state championship game. To start the season, Jasper will be without fourth-year varsity player Blake Blessinger, who’s sitting out eight games because of a code of conduct violation. Likewise, senior Logan Sermersheim — who hit nearly .400 in limited at-bats and scored the only run in Jasper’s 1-0 semistate win over New Palestine — is out 22 games with a suspension.

Instead of looking like much the same team they were last year, the Cats are suddenly starting with an uncertain complexion. Especially on the mound, without Sapp and for the meantime without Blessinger, last year’s No. 2 man who won five of six decisions.

In response, coach Terry Gobert is preaching the idea of opportunity.

“There’s times where you have situations like that and just have nobody to take the ball. Those guys we’re going to give it to are all pretty good ballplayers,” Gobert said. “They’re all capable of throwing the ball well. We’ve got some guys that are going to get a chance, that’s for sure.”
Gobert said junior Karson Nixon has been the most consistent pitcher early and is the favorite to earn the opening-day start Saturday against Norwell. Senior Luke Rogers, junior Ben Mundy and sophomores Mark Giesler and Nick Gobert add more substance to the staff.

Still, the return of several veterans offers plenty of promise.

Junior Dane Giesler, who’ll move into left field, hit nearly .300 with 40 RBIs a year ago. Senior Tory Hall (.347) is in his third year catching while senior Sam Rumbach (corner infield), junior Caleb Begle (.301, shortstop) and Nick Gobert (second base) all started last year.

Sophomore Devon Traylor takes over in center field with backup from junior Cole Rohleder, junior Andrew Bies is among a handful of prospects in right field and junior Logan Hettinger could see time at first base and catcher.

“We still have some kids that can compete. We’re just going to have to work a little harder now than where we thought we’d be at this point,” Terry Gobert said. “It’s going to take a good effort by these kids, because we play some pretty strong teams early.”

On a team that includes 10 juniors, many of whom are still getting acquainted with varsity baseball, Raider coach Brad Wibbeler is fine with Blake Broeker being the barometer.

The senior hit at a .407 clip a year ago and spanked seven home runs, and he returns to combine with junior Kyle Seger for a steady 1-2 pitching combo. Wibbeler said Broeker’s production can have a trickle-down effect for a team coming off a 16-14 season that ended in the sectional final with a 5-3 defeat to eventual state runner-up Jasper.

“The guys definitely respond to him. Anything he does or say, they’re going to listen,” Wibbeler said of Broeker. “Top to bottom, I think we’re going to produce.”

Pitcher and utility man Kyle Bieker and center fielder Brandon Gasser (who hit .333 last season) complete the senior class while the deep junior group has Wibbeler guessing he’ll need time to sort and juggle the possibilities.

“I could have played 1,000 different lineups,” Wibbeler said of the order he settled on for Tuesday’s season-opening 3-2 defeat at North Posey. “There’s so many different ways we could go.”

One of the constants is Seger, who looked sharp despite taking the opening-game defeat, Wibbeler said. Raider pitchers will pair with new faces behind the plate as junior Blake Nordhoff and sophomore Ben Weber are splitting catching duties for now. Sophomore Nathan Tretter moves into right field while two juniors have also made a sizable jump. Zach Stetter, a second baseman Wibbeler said has always been a trusty defender, was slotted as the No. 2 hitter in the season opener Tuesday, while newcomer Adam Boeglin (left field) hit cleanup.

The Raiders also add a wild card in Felix Zimmerle, an exchange student from Austria who’ll play in the infield and pitch.

Jarred Howard knows what he’s created.

Two years ago, the Rangers inked a program record by winning 24 games. Last spring, they matched it in a 24-6 finish.

Howard realizes the expectation is for bigger and better. Even as his roster is crammed with nine seniors, Howard sees a targeted team that’s still scrambling to reach baseball mode despite being ranked No. 1 in Class 2A to open the season.

“It’s going to be tough for us to do that again,” Howard said of the successive 24-win seasons. “One, because there’s always pressure on you when you’re a senior. And two, when you start off ranked, those always go off of what last year’s team did. That puts an X on your back where everyone wants to come after you. It’s going to be a process for us.

“I think we can have a really good season, but it’s going to be tough for us.”

The Rangers have already coped with a delay of getting five players back from a basketball team that reached the semistate. Of the non-basketball players, Howard said seniors Kyle Schwinghamer and Mitch Lampert have resumed the sort of form they established last year. Schwinghamer, a University of Evansville signee, hit .489 while setting the program’s single-season records for runs (40), triples (seven) and total bases (84), while Lampert hit .347 with 38 RBIs.

Seniors Grant Welp (.447), Brent Sherman (.365), Kyle Wilgus (.365) and Nathan Bromm (.353) lend more zing to a Ranger order that broke more program records last year in runs (275), hits (318) and RBIs (250).

Howard, though, sees pitching as the phase that’ll dictate the direction of Forest Park’s season. He’s got a reliable duo there with Lampert (9-2, 2.87 ERA) and senior Marcus Beckman (7-3, 3.40) while two lefties — senior Landon Greulich and junior Collin Wollenmann — have improved considerably, Howard said. Welp and junior Evan Olinger can help on the mound while Bromm is back behind the plate.

Schwinghamer mans center field as the anchor of an outfield unit that includes Beckman, Wollenmann, Sherman and junior Dakota Geyer. Experience is all over the infield with Welp as a utility man to supplement Lampert (third base), Wilgus (shortstop), juniors Jake Meyer and Connor Seger (second base) and senior Zach Hulsman and junior Ben Weyer (first base).

In 17 prior years of coaching high school baseball, Brian Kirchoff had never operated with fewer than four seniors on any team.

With one senior on hand as he begins his ninth season with the Jeeps, Kirchoff doesn’t operate with elder experience. But he does have six players with some measure of starting experience from last year’s sectional championship team. And that has Kirchoff intrigued about the prospects of a team that started five sophomores and a freshman in Monday’s 11-4 season-opening loss to Tell City.

“I personally think it’s going to be fun. I enjoyed myself (Monday) night, and even though we lost, there were some things I thought we were further along in than I expected we’d be,” Kirchoff said.

“These classes here, the sophomore and freshman classes have been successful in junior high. It’s just a matter of getting their feet wet a little bit and getting used to the speed of the varsity game. That makes a big difference.”

Nathan Merkley is the only senior, and the lefty joins junior Mackenzie Weisheit and sophomore Joe Gress in the primary pitching rotation. Merkley and Weisheit each won three games a year ago, and they’ll fill in the infield while Gress will play outfield when not pitching.

Junior Jace Gordon can absorb some innings while playing on the left side of the infield, and classmate Zach Neukam assists in the outfield. The sophomore class brings infielder and pitcher Austin Kunz — whose average of around .320 was the second-best on the team last year — plus first-year catcher Jace Terwiske and outfielders Bryce Huebner and Shane Troutt. Freshman infielder Cameron Riecker will also get plenty of time during a season where Kirchoff’s emphasis is to view progress not solely through a wins-and-losses lens.

The Jeeps operated with a similar blueprint last year, when they were 16-12 and finished by capturing with the program’s fourth sectional title in the last six years.

“I think we can challenge in the sectional, and by June, we can be pretty competitive,” Kirchoff said. “We can’t use our youth as a crutch all season. Eventually, they will have experience.”

Patriot coach Dave Sensenbrenner sees the talent. Now, he’s stressing the timing.

Seven seniors have played a part in the program’s crescendo, from a .500 season in 2008 to 18-11 the next year and a 22-7 finish last spring. Now, the aim is to discover a finishing kick that eluded Heritage Hills a year ago, when the Pats spent part of the year in the Class 3A rankings but sputtered in an opening-round sectional loss to Washington.

“We didn’t finish how we’d like to. We probably peaked too early,” said Sensenbrenner, whose team is ranked eighth in 3A in the preseason. “We’re impressing on the kids to finish as strong as we possibly can to compete for a sectional.”

The Patriots come armed with a pitching staff capable of completing the charge.
Ty Simpson, Chaz Ferguson, Garrett VanKirk and Wes Ward give Heritage Hills four seniors who combined to win 19 games last spring. The staff is accented with two juniors, Damon Wahl and Jake Fella.

“I’m pretty deep in pitching as far as kids who can go out there and compete a little bit,” Sensenbrenner said. “That’s a strong point.”

The Pats also return an All-Pocket Athletic Conference performer in senior Drew Rosbottom, who mans center field, while Simpson was another all-league pick who could find himself anywhere from pitcher to catcher to infield. Junior Trent Simpson will handle much of the catching, and junior Devon Wahl offers depth behind the plate.

There’s more veteran seniors with Tirey Burch back in the infield, Nick Perkins in the outfield and Ward as a utility man. Junior Adam Price competes in the outfield while Jason Carey (infield) and Andy Fischer (outfield) complete the nine-man crop of seniors.

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