Wildcats on the hunt for new leaders

Matthew Busch/The Herald
Jasper baseball coach Terry Gobert addressed his team prior to last June’s Class 3A state finals against Norwell. Last year’s state runner-up Wildcats have six starters back this season and open their 2014 campaign today at 5:30 at Ruxer Field against Illinois school New Trier.

Herald Sports Editor

Jasper baseball coach Terry Gobert isn’t in any rush.

His team has trekked to the state finals in two of the past four seasons, including last June when the Wildcats’ 32-4 season ended with a 2-1 defeat and a Class 3A state runner-up finish to Norwell. As usual, there’s an inventory of talent to make the Cats at least a threat to assemble a similar run.

But that’ll come later.

“There’s always high expectations, so we don’t really talk about it, as far as from last year to this year,” Gobert mentioned in passing.

For Jasper, the emphasis is on the here and now. Namely: How the Wildcats are going to retool after graduating seven seniors, including three-year center fielder Devon Traylor (Anderson University) plus current University of Dayton players Mark Giesler (the program’s career leader in doubles who went 8-2 on the mound last year) and Nick Gobert (22-2 career pitching mark).

“The difference is, (the returning players) are going to have to be the guys to do it. Those seniors pretty well led the way; all seven of them did a nice job. They led us in work ethic, they led us in (being the) first ones to practice,” Gobert said. “It’s been an adjustment for these young guys to realize they’re just not there (at a high level) in more ways than just (in terms of) the game. But they’ve done a nice job so far, everybody’s kind of pitched in.”

That’ll be necessary for the pitching staff after graduating players who combined for 22 wins last spring. Sophomore Cal Krueger (4-1, 2.30 ERA) will likely start this afternoon’s season opener at 5:30 at Ruxer Field against Chicago-area opponent New Trier. Gobert said senior Spencer Otto (4-0, 1.80) has looked sharp after a strong summer, while improved sophomore Brandon Bayer will also lend depth to the staff along with juniors Ben Moore and Austin Alles and sophomore Craig Shepherd.

While “it’s not one of those years where you just hand the ball to somebody and expect them to go seven (innings),” Gobert said, “it’s not one of those years where you just look and go, ”˜Oh my God, I don’t know who’s going to do it.’ We have some good candidates. But it’s going to be interesting to see who emerges.”

Senior Scott Stallwood (top returning hitter at .356) is back for a second year at catcher with backup from junior Gavin Lorey. Alles (.302) and Otto (.303) should rotate at first base, and Alles will also see time at third base, where Bayer and junior Zach Keusch are also in contention for time. Shepherd and Krueger, who both earned the starting middle infield posts at the end of last season, should rotate at second base with help from Keusch. Gobert’s hope is to have a non-pitcher offer some stability at shortstop, and junior Tyler Begle is the frontrunner for the job. Once he returns from a broken wrist, senior Landon Ball can also pitch and play first base.

In the outfield, Otto should still see time in right field, with Moore (.330) positioned at left field and junior Tyler Haskins taking over in center. Senior Jacob Seibert, junior Cody Jacob and freshman Evan Aders also find themselves in the mix for action in the outfield.

In one regard, expect little to be different with Dave Schank returning for his second stint as Raider coach to replace Brad Wibbeler.

“We don’t plan on changing much,” said Schank, who spent six years as an assistant and four as the head coach at Southridge in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “I was fortunate that I came into a program that had a pretty good system going on; Coach Wibbeler did a good job and his coaches, all of them have stayed with me. So it would be foolish to come in and change everything up. Their practice, organization, everything is great, why change it?”

On the other hand, though, the status quo doesn’t necessarily rule after the Raiders finished 14-12 and spent time in the Class 2A rankings last season with a good chunk of a young and promising team returning.

“Everybody will have to earn their position, no doubt about it,” added Schank, who pitched for two years at Indiana University before an arm injury curbed his career. “We’ve got a solid team, a deep team where people will push for spots. We’re two or three deep in some positions and guys are going to have to play hard, or somebody’s going to take it from them.”

The depth of talent starts on the mound, where senior Chad O’Bryan (4-1, 2.68 ERA) and junior Luke Stetter (4-3, 2.33) both established themselves as reliable starters last season, and the pitching staff works in tandem with junior Brett Nordhoff (.329), who’s back at catcher. Junior Jacob Brewer also absorbed plenty of innings along with classmate Neil Messmer. O’Bryan and Brewer (.355, team-best 22 RBIs) will handle duties at first base, and Messmer mans second base with assistance from junior Andrew Recker.

Junior Connor Craig (.308) is the incumbent at shortstop. Schank hopes to find a place in the lineup for sophomore Chad Meyer, who “hits a ton,” and Meyer is a candidate at third base along with senior Logan Sollman, junior Guadalupe Perez and sophomore Payton Mattingly.

Schank is still piecing together his outfield, with seniors William Gutgsell and juniors Perez, Stetter (.390) and Jeremiah Mundy available along with sophomores Matthew Tretter and Gaage Fetter and freshman Nolan O’Brien. Junior utilityman Dillion Ramsey (.303) can also assist when he returns from a leg injury.

Schank’s return isn’t the only new twist around League Stadium. The field will be the site of the Class 3A sectional this season, as the Raiders were awarded the sectional over usual host Jasper. The Wildcats will be the regional host, while League Stadium will also be the site of two southern semistate contests.

The Raiders will launch the season Tuesday at Castle.

In coach Jarred Howard’s 12 years, Forest Park has won better than 70 percent of its games, and 20-win seasons have been the norm.

But, as Howard points out, the current core of Rangers don’t remember 12 years ago.

“But they can remember last year, so last year’s a motivation for them for how they’re going about things,” said Howard, whose team finished 12-14 in 2013 for the first losing season since 1990.

“Last year was the toughest season I’ve had here in 12 years,” Howard added. “We had a good bunch of kids that played hard, but wins and losses were very tough last year for us. I think our guys have been very focused on that, and it’s been a motivation for them coming into this year, that they’re motivated to be successful.”Howard added that “we have some guys that’s put a lot of individual work in during the wintertime,” and the byproduct is that 13 Rangers are jostling for positions and “they’re all very similar,” Howard said. “(It’ll be a) tough time making a lineup.”

A good place to start is with sophomore Ben Wendholt (.342) and senior Alec Hassfurther (.355, 16 RBIs), who hit third and fourth in the lineup last season, respectively. Both have pitching experience, though Hassfurther’s focus remains behind the plate as he starts for a third season at catcher. Jared Wilgus (.346) should also offer more assistance on the mound after playing through an injury last season, while senior classmate Trent Bayer also gained experience on the mound a year ago.

Within that quartet, Howard sees plenty of balance.

“We’ve always had one or two really decent arms and some guys to complement them, where these guys are more similar. We’re going to need to find some guys on the mound that’s going to compete,” said Howard, whose team will host Princeton on Saturday to open the season. “Defensively, I think we’ll be fine, and hopefully we have some guys at the plate that can step up.”

Cody Tempel (.316) returns to the outfield where fellow seniors Bayer, Josh Voegerl, Bryce Bettag and Reece Heilers equip the Rangers with experience as junior Bailey Hoffman is in the mix there, too.

In Wendholt (third base), Wilgus (first base), senior Bryan Hurst (corner infield) and junior Damon Wilmes (shortstop), the Rangers are stocked with infield experience. The vacancy at second base could be filled by sophomores Jaxon Cronin and David Lusk.

Matthew Busch/The Herald
Kristopher Weisheit, center, was congratulated after scoring a run for Northeast Dubois in last year’s sectional championship win against Tecumseh. Weisheit is one of four seniors on a Jeep team that’s won back-to-back sectionals.

Jeep coach Brian Kirchoff first offers this caveat: winning a sectional is wonderful, as Northeast Dubois has accomplished that the last two years and six times in Kirchoff’s 11 seasons.

But as the Jeeps come off a 15-13 season that ended with a second straight shutout loss to South Central (Elizabeth) in the regional, they’re thirsting for a little more.

“There comes a time when you win enough (sectionals) and you get to a regional and don’t have any (excuse of) lack of experience to fall back on, you don’t have ”˜Well we’ve never been there’ to fall back on,” Kirchoff said. “These kids have been there, and it really is, it’s time for us to make a little bit more noise.

“We’ve talked at length with them about we’ve been there and come close, and it seems like everybody talks about somebody else being the big dog on the porch, but we just kind of ask them, ”˜Why can’t that be us?’ Why can’t we be that team that everybody says, ”˜You’ve got to get through Dubois.’ We want to be that team.”

Kirchoff indicated his guys have a good start, as “we’ve come in a little bigger, a little stronger, and it seems like we’ve got more confidence about us,” he said. To complete the next step, Kirchoff said his team needs to be more consistent on the mound, and he thinks the Jeeps can be with a staff headed by seniors Kristopher Weisheit (4-2, 2.75 ERA) and Gage Knies (4-3, 3.78). Junior Reid Haas (2-0, 2.80), who also plays right field, struck out 24 in 20 innings of work last season.

Kirchoff feels secure with his leadership as a whole, with pitcher/shortstop Cameron Riecker (.387, 31 RBIs, five home runs, nine doubles) and left fielder Bill Schepers completing a four-man senior unit. Weisheit (.361, 25 RBIs, 10 doubles) also plays first base and Knies (.321, 12 RBIs) doubles at third base.

“It’s kind of neat, because they’re interspersed in our lineup,” Kirchoff said of his seniors. “I think it’ll help balance us out a little bit.”

Juniors Jacob Gress (.346, 23 RBIs) and Nolan Rasche (.321) also provide consistent bats, with Rasche back at catcher and Gress moving from center field to right. Junior Brayden Wineinger also shifts to outfield after playing third base, and a boost could come from 6-foot-7 junior Eric Dodson (pitcher/first base), who’s back after not playing last season.

The Jeeps also have three sophomores who can play infield as well as pitch: Cayden Knies, Jaxon Denu and Drew Jacob.

The Patriots’ long-term plan seems to be right on schedule.

In 2013, coach Dave Sensenbrenner made it a point to integrate as many young players into the lineup as possible. While that didn’t lend itself to generating much momentum — Heritage Hills never assembled more than two consecutive wins in the regular season and ended the year 14-15 after falling to Jasper in the sectional championship — the Patriots are finding the payoff a year later.

“We tried to do that as far as give those kids the most experience so we’d have a good crop back this year with experience,” Sensenbrenner said. “Right now we’ve got some depth in positions and good competition in those positions, and I think our pitching has improved a little bit with depth on it, too. Right now, I’m very pleased with where we’re at.”

The Patriots’ top returning hitter and pitcher are both underclassmen, as sophomore center fielder Kenton Crews hit .417 with 17 RBIs as a freshman, while junior Tyler Ward (6-3, 2.51 ERA, three saves) solidified his status as the team’s ace. Ward (.333) was also the squad’s second-leading hitter and will occupy shortstop when he doesn’t pitch.

Junior Cory Ebelhar (3-2, 3.63 ERA) and senior left-hander Dugan Kippenbrock (2-2, 3.15) combined to throw more than 50 innings in 2013, though a shoulder injury has slowed Ebelhar early. Crews has flashed “real good signs of coming on” as a pitcher, Sensenbrenner said, and sophomore Mason Becher will also factor into the rotation.

Junior Logan Wilkerson can literally play anywhere — infield, outfield, pitcher and as even a backup to juniors Nick Waninger and Cordell Miller, who will again split catching duties. Across the infield, Sensenbrenner also has plenty of options at first base (junior Cody Seifrig and senior Tyler Tischendorf), second base (Wilkerson and senior Drew Grass), shortstop (Ward, Wilkerson and senior Jame Ramsey) and third base (Becher, Ramsey and Wilkerson).

Kippenbrock (.301), a left fielder, is also part of a crew of outfield contenders that includes Ebelhar as well as Torrin Madden, Donovan Aders and Will Funston, who are all part of a nine-man senior class.

“That should be a strength for us,” Sensenbrenner said of his seniors. “They’re good kids, and we’ve got some good leaders in that group.”

Contact Brendan Perkins

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