When the O’Fallon Panthers baseball squad walked off the field on the short end of its sectional final contest against Plainfield South last spring, the season-ending loss was a hard pill to swallow. Finishing the campaign with a 33-6 record and a 12-2 mark in conference play, which garnered the Panthers their eighth league title in the past 11 years, Coach Jason Portz and his charges had much to savor and had set a high bar for 2017.
Undaunted, this year’s squad opened preseason workouts recently with unbridled optimism, and the positive vibes have been echoed by Portz, who begins his 16th season at the helm of the OTHS program with a career head coaching record of 402-115-1 at his alma mater.
“Our preseason workouts have been very productive this year. We have an outstanding group of seniors and returning players, along with combination of new varsity players that will provide us with the opportunity to compete for a Southwestern Conference championship and a deep run in the IHSA postseason,” Portz said.
Good pitching always trumps good hitting, and the 2017 Panthers squad has a deep and talented stable of hurlers on whom Portz will rely to give his team a significant advantage.
“This team has as much pitching depth as any team that we have had over the course of my years as a head coach,” Portz explained. “We have five or six guys that we feel can be quality starters and as many as 10 or 11 arms that could help us win baseball games in limited roles as relievers, spot starters or pitchers primarily designated for the junior-varsity level.”
The No. 1 pitching spot in the Panthers’ rotation will be handled by returning starter Logan Boente. The right-handed junior returns after posting exceptional numbers in 2016, completing the season with a 7-1 record and a 2.31 ERA in 56 innings of work. Other hurlers who will fill out O’Fallon’s pitching corps include Hayden Juenger, Brayden Arnold, Justin Dye, Heath Zuber, Luke Gasser and Adam Drewry. Waiting in the wings are Matthew Albritton, Jaysn Miller, Quinn Lowery, Marc Rodriguez and Garrett Herring — a formidable group of arms from which Portz will draw, each with his own set of assets to bring to the mound.
“Boente will anchor our rotation,” Portz said. “We will be looking for him to be one of the premier pitchers in the SWC this year. Juenger was 4-3 with a 1.79 ERA as a sophomore last spring. He has the potential to be a topflight arm, consistently throwing in the 85-88 range with very good run and command. Arnold tops out a 90 mph and has made great strides in the off season in developing a changeup and breaking pitch to complement his exceptional velocity. Dye and Zuber should compete for a top-five spot, and sophomore Luke Gasser is one of the most improved arms in our program.”
Charged with handling the pitching corps will be veteran senior backstop Chase Hackstadt. The Panthers catcher has played varsity baseball in each of his first three high school seasons. Injuries curtailed his playing time early, but last year he caught nearly every game for OTHS.
“Chase is an outstanding defensive catcher and leader,” Portz said. “He will be counted on to lead our pitching staff as well as serve as key figure in the dugout and in practice.”
The Panthers infield will also be manned by veteran players who have proven themselves in the field as well as at the plate. Senior Joe Guithes returns for his senior season at first base. A three-year starter, Guithes filled the DH spot for O’Fallon last spring, hitting .270. Six players will be vying for playing time at the middle infield positions. Sophomore Josh Gibson was the starting second baseman on the 2016 squad, ending the year with an excellent .324 batting average.
“Josh was the first freshman player I have ever had play every game at the varsity level for the entire season,” said Portz. “He runs extremely well, has a strong arms and has the potential to a .400-plus hitter. He likely will hit at the top of our batting order and has already signed with Missouri State.”
Other interior defenders who will see action for the Panthers include Hayden Juenger; Nathan Martin, who Portz characterizes as “the most improved player in our program”; Dominic Smiley; Braydon Arnold (.354 with 3 home runs in 2016) and Jacob Dreyer.
Portz will also have multiple options when filling out his lineup card for the outfield positions. One constant, however, will be center fielder Hayden Schaefer. Pegged by Portz as one of the top players in the SWC and the entire St. Louis area, Schaefer hit .452 with three home runs in limited varsity action as a junior. Flanking Schaefer will be senior Jordan Richardson, who Portz believes has the most power potential on the team, Nick Boone, Caleb Shelton, Quinn Lowery, and Christian Koechner, a three-year varsity letter winner.
“Offensively, this team will have 11-12 players who will be able to give us quality varsity at-bats. We should have a great combination of speed on the bases and guys that will be able to provide power in our batting order. I have been as happy with the work our kids have put in this offseason as any other year. Our players, freshmen through seniors, have put in a substantial amount of time and effort to translate into a successful season in 2017. Our expectations are to duplicate or improve on our record last year. It will be a tall order, but I know our players are determined and talented enough to realize their goals,” Portz said.
The Panthers will kick off their spring campaign next Wednesday, March 15, with a road game at Alton Marquette.