Longtime Highland High School baseball coach Joel Hawkins knows successful teams most often feature the best pitching staff. Judging by the depth and talent they will trot out to the bump, the Bulldogs should be very formidable in an Mississippi Valley Conference arms race this season.
Highland returns of boat load of pitchers with 14 of them vying for innings this spring, including three key left-handers.
The Bulldogs' deep pitching pool is a big reason why Hawkins kept 24 players on the varsity roster, and all but one of two dozen players are upperclassmen.
"We have a lot of guys that can throw, and I don't know where they are all going to pitch yet, but pitching should be the strength of our team," Hawkins said. "We have four lefties, and lefties are just tough to hit."
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The wealth of arms will be led the quartet of senior right-hander Elliott Prott, a pair of senior lefties in Connor Pinsker and lefty Robert Sigman, as well as junior lefty Payne Waldman, who helped lead Highland to a solid 24-10 campaign a year ago.
Hawkins said none of them are hard throwers, but they are all have a knack for getting hitters out.
Prott, who is going to McKendree University to kick for the football team and will most likely play baseball there as well, was stellar last season with a 2-0 record, two saves and a team-low ERA of 0.60 in 23 1/3 innings.
"At the end of the year, he was was probably the most consistent pitcher for us, and he was pitching some big innings for us," Hawkins said of Prott, "The way Elliott throws, and the way the ball acts, makes him hard to hit."
Pinsker is a two-time staff ace for the Bulldogs. Last year, Pinsker went 6-3 with a 1.32 ERA and a team-low 0.93 WHIP (walks, plus hits per innings pitched) in a team-high 69 innings of service.
Waldman (6-1) matched Pinsker for the team lead in wins and also finished with the second-lowest ERA (1.21) and the second-highest number of innings (40 1/3).
Sigman (2-1, two saves, 3.11 ERA in 27 innings) was effective in relief and closed out a number of games.
"He's a bulldog, and he's fun to have," Hawkins said of Sigman.
Senior righty Dustin Phelps (2-0, 3.20 ERA in 19 2/3 innings) also got some good work last spring.
Also looking good in the preseason have senior Jonathan Dickman, junior Jacob Willis, junior lefty Riley Field, junior Bailey Trame, senior Griffin Frahm, junior Michael Barth and senior Austin Habermehl. All will be in the mix, battling for innings, this spring.
Frahm was the workhorse for the junior varsity last year. He and Barth helped the Junior American Legion team go to state last summer, while Habermehl has come back to the program after not playing his junior year.
Key returners on the infield are seniors Brock Troxell, Prott and Pinsker, as well as Willis.
Pinsker returns to handle first base when not pitching. He led the Bulldog starters in getting on base with a .411 batting average, a .521 on-base percentage, three doubles, one home run, 25 runs batted in, and 25 runs scored.
Wills, who showcases nifty hands at shortstop, was the second-best Bulldog in getting on base after hitting .408 with .a 492 on-base percentage, to go with a team-leading hits (42), nine doubles, one homer, one triple, 24 RBIs, and 35 runs.
Troxell was solid at second base last year and could see some time in the outfield this spring. He batted .347 with a .475 on-base percentage last season. Troxell has also been a prolific base stealer for two consecutive seasons. He also had second most steals (19) and second most runs (31) to go along with three doubles, one home run, one triple and 13 RBIs a year ago. Two years ago, as a sophomore, Troxell thieved on 25 bases.
Prott, who carried a .373 average, with a .478 on-base, 10 doubles, two triples, one triple, 23 RBIs and 14 runs, returns to handle the hot corner.
Battling to be the starting catcher are senior Dylan Knebel (.300, seven doubles, three home runs, 27 RBIs, 16 runs) and junior Cody Blackburn.
"Cody is a young guy, and he has some real nice skills, and Dylan is learning the position," Hawkins said. "We know (Knebel) can hit, so we're excited to see how he works with the pitching staff."
Sigman will most likely take over at first base when Pinsker is on the mound. Junior Ross Spies has also looked good at first base and could earn some time.
Sophomore Kyle Schlater will back up Willis at shortstop. Senior Luke Landmann and junior Ryan Hacke can both play second base, especially if Troxell sees time in the outfield. Senior Colten Knebel, Dylan's twin brother, and Trame will back up Prott at third base.
Like his brother, Colten Knebel (.371 average, .585 on-base) can also swing the bat.
Key returners to patrol the outfield are the senior duo of Garrett Marti and Dickman.
Marti has considerable speed, which is helpful in flagging down balls in cavernous center field. Marti also has power at the plate. He ranked first on the Bulldogs in home runs (four), triples (three), stolen bases (22) and runs scored (37) last year. He also shared the team lead in RBIs with 27, and also hit .314 with a .424 on-base percentage and five doubles.
Dickman (.260 average, .374 on-base, three doubles, 16 RBIs, 22 runs) brings his speed back to right field.
Troxell could also see time in the outfield.
In addition, senior Evan Herman returns with experience in left field, and seniors Michael Riffel, Frahm and Nick Schaible will also be fighting for playing time in the outfield.
Mississippi Valley Conference
Highland will be looking to compete for its Mississippi Valley Conference championship since sharing it in 2015. That was same year the Bulldogs won their second Class 3A state title.
"We've got a good group, and they're itching to compete," Hawkins said of his team. "We haven't won (the MVC) in a bit. We tied for it in 2015, and we'd sure like to get back in there... It will be a good league again, but we'd like to think that we will be competing for it this year."
But there should be plenty of competition. Mascoutah, Waterloo, Civic Memorial were all tough last year and should be formidable again.
In addition, Triad has almost everybody back and should be more ready to compete with an experienced team after showing gradual improvement with a young team in recent seasons.
After the regular season ends, Highland will host a Class 3A regional at Glik Park.