The final memory of the 2016 high school baseball season is bitter for the Belleville East Lancers.
After battling and battling in a game that was so long it was completed over two days, Belleville East lost a 6-5, 18-inning marathon to rival Belleville West in the regional semifinals.
“That’s one thing I think about all the time,” said Belleville East coach Ryan Wiggs, in his second year as varsity coach. “That’s one thing I use as motivation for our guys now. It was taxing emotionally and physically, 18 innings over two days. We gave a great effort, but West earned it.”
The Lancers wrapped up their season at 25-11. They begin 2017 in the Prep Baseball Report Kickoff Classic at 4 p.m. Thursday at GCS Ballpark in Sauget where they’ll face Columbia.
One thing Wiggs and the Lancers hope to earn this season is a shot at the Southwestern Conference title. East has a deep pitching staff loaded at the top with three college-bound veterans in seniors Evan Lawrence (McKendree) and Cody Freppon (Southwestern Illinois) and 6-foot-3 junior left-hander Ben Cruikshank (Missouri State).
“We have three top of the rotation guys,” Wiggs said. “We definitely have confidence in our pitchers doing their job. We have to play good defense and we have to execute at the plate.”
Freppon (4-3, 1.70 ERA) was a second-team All-SWC pick last spring as a junior, leading the team in strikeouts (61) and innings pitched (57 2/3).
Lawrence (4-3, 1.59 ERA) struck out 59 batters in 48 1/3 innings. Cruikshank, who committed to Division I Missouri State before throwing a single pitch as a junior, was 4-1 with a 2.50 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings.
“We’ve got confidence in six or seven guys out on the mound,” said Wiggs, who can also call upon senior Mike Lassman (1-0, 4.38 ERA), junior Ryan Culley, sophomore Evan Gray and senior Jordan Phillips. “It’s no secret our conference is one of the best around and we’ll be challenged every single day. We hope that our pitchers can keep us in ballgames and give us a chance to win.”
The Lancers’ lineup was hit hard by graduation. Gone are the top three hitters from 2016 — Drew Millas (Missouri State), Jordan Yates (Evangel) and Patrick Gaul (Lindenwood-Belleville) — so Wiggs is counting on a mix of returnees and new faces to provide some offense for his potentially strong mound staff.
Lawrence (.248, nine doubles, 12 RBIs) figures to see time at pitcher, catcher and on the infield, with senior Trevor Sanchez (.320, 10 RBIs) back at third base.
Senior Braxton Chandler (Lindenwood-Belleville) will see time at catcher while senior Ricky Dambacher could be used at designated hitter. Junior Austin Hitt is at short and promising sophomore Zechariah “Z” Georgian is the starter at second. Battling for time at first are Culley, Phillips and sophomore Kyle Rensing.
Phillips is also counting on speedy senior Ryan Mead (.333) in center field, with sophomores Dillon Donjon and Gray also vying for outfield time along with seniors Jaden Webb and Culley.
“You have to come ready to play every single day in our conference, there’s no exceptions,” Wiggs said. “The versatility that we have will be helpful to us.”