Highland High School veteran baseball coach Joel Hawkins’ team will feature a lot of new faces this spring after the squad was hit hard by graduation from last year’s disappointing 18-19 campaign.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” Hawkins admitted. “There are a lot of new faces so there is a lot of wide open stuff to be decided.”
Like there are plenty of unknowns for his team this season, Hawkins is not sure which team is the clear-cut favorite to win the Mississippi Valley Conference this spring.
Last year, Waterloo won the conference at 9-1 and Jerseyville finished a close second at 8-2. Highland, Mascoutah and Civic Memorial all finished in the middle of the pack with even 5-5 marks. Triad brought up the rear after going winless in league play at 0-10.
“The whole league is up in the air and I can’t tell anymore,” Hawkins admitted.
One aspect Hawkins is sure of and likes is his team’s overall speed.
“What I see as a plus for this team is that they really run,” he said. “We move so much better than we did a year ago. We want to them to move around and steal runs and stuff, so we’re excited about that.”
Hawkins also likes the way his team has been handling the bat in various circumstances.
“The bunting has been good so they’re doing a really good job with the little game,” he said. “But we’ll see what they do when the lights get turned on. And I like the way they have been swinging it in the early going too. These kids can really swing the bat.”
Highland opens up with two road games, at Freeburg on Monday, March 20 and at Roxana on Friday, March 24, before hosting Breese Central for its home opener at Glik Park on Monday, March 27.
Junior left-hander Connor Pinsker was a pleasant surprise as a sophomore last year on the bump, where he finished with a 6-4 record and a 2.10 ERA in 43 1/3 innings. Pinsker should open the season as the No. 1 starter.
“He won six games last year and we expect him to be in the middle of things on the mound,” Hawkins said. “He doesn’t throw hard, but he has got a great changeup and he moves it around.”
Joining Pinsker on the mound will be seniors Steven Diaz and Jake Ramsey, who both saw very limited playing time last year both on the mound.
“He had a very good summer and I think he’s ready to go,” Hawkins said of Diaz. “Jake Ramsey also has a very good arm and he is also ready to go.”
Other pitchers who have looked good in the early going are juniors Garrett Marti, Dustin Phelps, Elliott Prott and lefty Robert Sigman, as well as sophomores Payne Waldman, a lefty, and Jacob Willis.
“We’re hoping to go with a hard-throwing righty and a couple of soft-tossing lefties that move it around to kind of mix it up,” Hawkins said.
Junior Brock Troxell returns to second base after having a very good sophomore campaign there. Last year at the dish Troxell batted .326 with a .451 on-base percentage, a team-high 30 stolen bases, a team-best 31 runs scored and 10 RBIs.
Troxell will most likely be the table setter as the leadoff hitter in the team’s batting order.
“Brock was really good last year and he runs around well,” Hawkins said. “He can really run, and Garrett Marti is even faster than him, which is hard to believe. But they are both really quick. I think Brock is even going to be better than he was a year ago.”
Hawkins said Willis has looked really good at short stop.
“Jacob Willis at short has to be really good for us; he has got to be a pillar for us.” Hawkins said.
Pinsker will most likely be at first base, although Sigman is also vying for the spot.
“I like what we see out of Connor at first and I think he is going to be terrific there,” Hawkins said.
In the battle at the hot corner at third base are juniors Prott and Colten Knebel.
The catching position is one where there is no experience at all and it is a wide open battle between sophomore Mitchell Focht, junior Dylan Knebel, Colten’s twin brother, and senior Braden Rehkemper.
“That is the most uknown position and we’re going to have to fight that out and see what happens,” Hawkins said.
In addition, freshman Kyle Schlater will provide depth at shortstop and second base.
Marti and Diaz are battling with their speed and skills to see who will be the starter in center field. Marti just may be the fastest kid on the team. The one who doesn’t earn the starting spot in center will most likely take over in left field.
Sophomore Jonathan Dickman also possesses good speed and there is a real good chance he will be in right field.
Also adding depth in the outfield are juniors Mike Riffel, Nick Schaible and Evan Herman.