Higher expectations await Forest Park baseball

Herald File Photo
Senior Gavin Knust anchored Forest Park's pitching staff last year.


FERDINAND — Jarred Howard would not have believed it if someone told him during his first season that he’d be coaching at Forest Park for 20 years. The former Oakland City University coach thought he would be at Forest Park for a bit, and return to the collegiate level, but he fell in love with the school, and those 20 years have flown by for him.

Yet, as times change during a 20-year span, so do habits, and Howard talked about how he is different as he enters his 20th season, compared to how he was when he first started.

“If you were to talk to my early teams, they would tell you that I was not very patient, much harder to play for than I am now,” Howard said. “Things change as you have your own kids and things change as you mature a little bit. There’s no doubt my first few years I was very difficult to play for.”

His 20th season is one where the expectations for his players are raised. The 2019 team trotted a young group onto the field and finished 11-14, but still won the sectional opener. The 2020 club, however, is more seasoned. Howard touted how tough last year’s schedule was, and told the Herald on Tuesday that he’s still looking to add more games. He put it that last year’s schedule was probably too tough for Forest Park’s young players. Howard said that team could’ve lost games and still gotten better, but this year’s Rangers want to play tough teams and be successful.

Howard has his reasons for optimism, and it starts with the pitching. He believes this is the most depth his pitching staff has had in the last 10 years. It all starts with senior Gavin Knust, who went 10-3 with a team-best 3.55 ERA in 2019. The southpaw struck out 51 batters, walked 23 and was named to the All-Pocket Athletic Conference Team.

“Gavin’s picked up some velocity this year,” Howard said. “So, he’s going to throw harder, but he’s worked hard in the wintertime of commanding his second pitch — commanding the slider, commanding a changeup, he’s a learned a little cutter this year. Last year, he had enough velocity to win for us. He’s just going to have to throw more strikes, and he’s going to have to command his second pitch, and I think he’s going to do that this year, especially with an increased velocity. That’ll be the biggest key for him.”

Junior Gage Hasenour is another seasoned piece to the rotation, having gone 3-1 and posting a 3.64 ERA in 25 innings of work as a sophomore. Sophomore Drew Howard, Jarred’s son, started at shortstop last year and also pitched. Jarred said his son has increased his velocity and had a great summer last year. Fellow sophomore Caden Scherer got some work on the mound and got more comfortable as the season went on.

Another sophomore, Landon Nalley, has enough velocity, but is asked to throw more strikes and command the strike zone more. Freshman Clayton Weisheit is also expected to be part of the fold. Howard praised Weisheit for being big, strong and athletic who throws the ball hard. He added that Weisheit throws the breaking ball well.

“We’re excited about the pitching depth that we have,” he said. “I’ve not had five guys that I could throw in a varsity and feel confident in a long time. We’ve always had one or two or three good arms, but realistically, we think we have four or five guys that can go out there and compete against varsity hitters.”

Howard is high on sophomore catcher Brody Kluesner and his ability to handle the pitching staff. Kluesner manned the backstop for the majority of the season last year as a freshman. Howard thinks it’s huge that Kluesner has a season under his belt of catching the returning pitchers and working with them during the winter. Howard calls the game, but allows Kluesner to have input. He praised his catcher for putting in a lot of work in the weight room, receiving the ball better and being more quiet behind the plate.

The expectations are increased for Kluesner, too. Forest Park just asked him to keep the ball at the backstop, but the Rangers expect Kluesner to be able to throw out runners this year as well.

Knust was more than just the team’s ace last year. His three home runs and 23 RBIs paced Forest Park. Fellow senior Zach Wahl racked up a slash line of .419/.493/.516. Howard said both of them worked on their swings.

“Gavin was jumpy at the ball,” Howard said. “He was strong and he was a great hitter for us last year, but he needs to be a little flatter and keep his barrel in the zone a little longer and not be so jumpy at the ball.

“Zach hit everything off of his front foot,” he continued. “He was a great hitter, has great hand-eye coordination, went the other way a lot, had a successful season doing that last year, but we wanted him to learn how to actually pull on a ball and use the right side of the field as well. He’s done that, and we’re real happy where both of them are.”

Howard’s biggest question is if his defense can make plays in the field. He wants his players to spend a lot of time on fundamental footwork, but going outside at this time of year presents a challenge. The Rangers could possibly focus on that footwork in a gym or indoor facility. Howard also talked about doing game situations once the team goes outside. He said Forest Park will do game situations “almost daily” with its defense. This pertains to getting used to the speed of the game, base runners and what the team is supposed to do with the ball.

He plans on shuffling the team around a lot during the first couple of weeks this year. Howard plans on having a different lineup every game in the early going. Every pitcher will throw, and Howard wants to know who will compete on the mound and throw strikes. He’s also looking to see who will compete at the plate.

The Rangers open the season April 2 at home against Crawford County.

“We want to go out there, we want to win ballgames, we want to compete,” he said. “But we also want to try to figure out as a coaching staff who is going to be able to compete in the different positions, whether it be on the mound or at the plate or defensively.”

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