The Highland High School baseball team should be in good hands — or arms — considering the Bulldogs return three of their top hurlers from a squad that went 21-14 a year ago.
Highland brings back two of its top two starters in seniors Tyler Kimmle and Grant Geppert.
Kimmle put up some gaudy numbers after leading the team in wins and ERA with a 6-2 record and a 2.13 ERA in 42 2/3 innings, which ranked second on the club.
Geppert led the team in innings pitched at 54 1/2 and went and even 3-3 with a 2.71 ERA. The highlight of his season came when he fired a no-hitter in a 5-1 victory at Jerseyville on April 23, 2014. Geppert allowed just one walk while striking out nine, and the only run Jerseyville got was unearned, because it scored with the help of a Bulldog error.
Highland also returns its top reliever from last spring in left-handed senior Pete Baumgartner, who racked up the most appearances a year ago.
Joel Hawkins, the Bulldogs’ veteran coach, said Baumgartner may get a chance to start this season, but that decision had not yet been determined as of early this week.
“Grant Geppert and Tyler Kimmle, they sucked up a lot of innings last year, and they got a lot of wins, too. So we’re very hopeful with those guys,” said Hawkins, whose team is scheduled to begin the season Monday with a home game against Carmel Catholic from Mundelein, Ill. “And Pete is another one who ate up a lot of innings last year. He led the team in appearances. I think I used him 14 times, or something like that. He’s back, and he’s throwing the ball very hard. Those three guys look like they will lead the pitching staff.”
Other pitchers who have looked good in the early going are Jordan Smith, Griffin Welz, Sam Greene and Matt Beyer.
A big roster
Hawkins said he kept 23 players — five seniors and 18 juniors — for the varsity roster, which is an unprecedented number for him.
“I’ve never kept this many before, so this is kind of an experiment for me,” said Hawkins, who is in his 24th year at the helm of the Bulldog program. “It is a good sign, because they all can do something, whether it is catch or throw or run. (Keeping them all) is a good compliment, because they all are about even. We’re talking to each of them about what their role is going to be. You won’t get 23 of them in most games. That’s the challenge, and that’s what I have talked to most of them about.
“We’re supposed to be putting our teammate ahead of ourself already anyway. So, we’ll see if that happens, because that will be tested this year with that many people.”
Hawkins said senior catcher Matt Augustin should be crucial for the Bulldogs this season.
“I think this guy behind the plate is where it starts,” Hawkins said. “He has led very well and he looks good throwing that ball down to second base. And he can really run and that helps a lot.”
Backing Augustin up behind the plate are Austin Brown, Greene and Nick Schmollinger. Hawkins said all three of them are more than capable of doing the job, if called upon to do so.
When not on the bump, Geppert will most likely be at first base on defense. Hawkins said Geppert has really been swinging a potent bat in the preseason. That is not a major surprise and really is just a carryover from last season when he ranked first on the team in three vital categories, batting average (.411), hits (39) and RBIs (29).
Geppert also hit eight doubles and two triples to go with 10 stolen bases and 25 runs scored, which was tied for third on the team.
“He can also play the outfield, because he has such a good arm, but we’re also thinking about protecting him after he pitches, and he is going to throw a lot for us. So (first base) may even be a better position for him,” Hawkins said.
Looking really strong defensively in the early going are Kimmle, fellow senior Cody Bentlage and Welz, a junior. All three possess quality speed.
Kimmle will most likely man second base when he is not pitching. Bentlage will return to showcase his range and glove at shortstop, ad Welz will be stationed at the hot corner.
The guys backing up those defensive players who double as starting pitchers will also play important roles.
Backing Geppert up at first base will be Smith and Trent Carriger.
Seth Luitjohan is very sound defensively and can play both second base and shortstop. Mike McGill and Austin Hickam can also play both middle-infield positions.
A lot of speed
Hawkins said a pleasant surprise is that the group of outfielders are quicker than he first anticipated.
“We’ve got some kids with some good ability,” he said. “We’ve been very lucky the past few years in that we have had a lot of speed on the team. This year, it looks like guys can really run around all over the field.”
Key returners with good speed in the outfield are Will Greenwald and Andrew Winning.
Hawkins said Chris Dickman has good size, a strong arm and solid speed.
Jarrett Dubach, Beyer and Jimmy Smith all also possess good speed. Beyer also is fundamentally sound while Smith also features a good arm.
Hawkins said the biggest question for the team could be the offense.
“I think of all of the inexperience, that’s probably the place where you’ll see it, is how we’re going to get offense generated right away,” he said. “Then maybe not, because maybe that speed will pay off. And everybody is in the same hole because everybody has been inside, inside, inside. And now we’re finally outside and it’s very exciting.”
But once they do get on base, the Bulldogs’ speed could pose dangers to opposing defenses.
“There are going to be a lot of green lights,” Hawkins joked.
And of course, a team under Hawkins needs to be adept at doing the smaller fundamental things such as bunting and stealing.
“The junior group is a big group, but they seem to do a good job caring about the little things, and hopefully that stuff (bunting and stealing) is something you will see them able to do when we get out there. We have to do some of that obviously in order to manufacture runs,” Hawkins said.
The MVC should be loaded, as all six teams should be plenty competitive. Defending champion Mascoutah should still be tough, but so should the other five squads.
“It will be interesting to see who comes out of it all and wins the league, but it’s a good league for baseball and it should be very competitive,” Hawkins said.