The O'Fallon Panthers baseball team was 32-6 last season, finished second in the Southwestern Conference and won a regional championship. But OTHS coach Jason Portz, who is entering his 16th year leading the Panthers, thinks this year's squad could be even better.
“As with any season, we have lofty goals that include winning the SWC and advancing deep in the state tournament,” said Portz whose career record sits at 434-136-1 and includes seven Southwestern Conference titles, 10 regional championships, four sectional crowns, two super-sectional championships, and four state appearances.
Graduation took replace several key components from last year's team, including Joe Guithues (.379, 30 RBIs), Jordan Richardson (24 RBIs), Chase Hackstadt (16 RBIs) and Heath Zuber (6-1, 2.33 earned run average), among others.
“It’s always tough to replace seniors,” Portz said. “The guys we had last year were very productive and, as a whole, outstanding leaders in our program."
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However, the Panthers have a strong group coming back.
“Beyond (our pitching), I think we will be very strong defensively, and, as the year progresses, this team has the potential athletes to be a very potent offensive club,” Portz said.
Deep rotation will anchor Panthers
The Panthers will be loaded on the bump.
“We will strong on the mound,” Portz said. “We bring back a wealth of experience in (seniors) Hayden Juenger, Brayden Arnold, Logan Boente and Jaysn Miller.”
Juenger, last year's ace ( 7-2, 2.20 ERA), will again anchor the staff. Committed to Missouri State, Portz described Juenger as one of the Midwest’s top right-handed pitchers.
“He returns with a lot of confidence,” Portz said. “Hayden has increased his arm strength this year and has the potential to dominate any lineup.”
Arnold, meanwhile, again will be the No. 2 hurler. Arnold, who is committed to Maryville University, posted an 8-1 mark and 2.85 ERA in 2017.
“He has great sink and run (on his pitches) and really knows how to pitch,” Portz said. “Brayden had great success in 2017 for us, and I expect the same type of effort from him this year.”
Boente, a McKendree University commit, will handle the No. 3 slot in the rotation. A three-year letter winner, Boente went 8-1 last year with a miniscule 0.91 ERA and has a career mark of 15-1.
“Logan has had a great career,” Portz said.
Though power has never been part of his pitching, Portz said that Boente has added size and strength this last season.
"As most seniors do, he has a high level of confidence," Portz said. "Logan is very valuable to our staff as a No. 3 starter and big game reliever.”
Portz also will count on Miller (committed to Elmhurst College) and Garrett Herring (committed to Southwestern Illinois College). Miller was 2-0 last spring with a 2.40 ERA and led the team appearances from the bullpen. Herring did not see any varsity time in 2017, but Portz figures on him serving as a weekend starter in non-conference games.
“Jaysn will see action as a long and short reliever for us,” Portz said. “He has great command and sink giving him the ability to get hitters out in a variety of ways. Garrett has been a work in progress in our program. He had a great summer and is starting to see his body develop. He has great length.”
Other pitchers who should see mound time include junior Luke Gasser and seniors Nate Kellerman, Marc Rodriguez and Adam Drewry.
Handling the pitchers this spring will be seniors Jeremy Reno and Drewry, along with junior Kyle Becker.
“They are all competing for time behind the plate,” Portz said. “All have their strengths and weaknesses, but we feel whoever gets the call for the day, we will have a solid core of catchers.”
Around the infield
Portz will look toward junior Matthew Albritton (.289, 11 RBIs in 2017) at first base.
“A physically gifted kid, Matt will bring a lot of power to the middle of our order,” Portz said.
Senior Jacob Dreyer (10 RBIs) also could see some time at first base.
Portz has senior Nathan Martin penciled in for second base, while junior Josh Gibson (.371, 18 RBIs) is slated for shortstop.
“Nathan is one of the finer defensive players in the league,” Portz said. “He handles the bat well and will be a productive piece of our order. Josh returns after a terrific sophomore year. He has developed into one of the top middle infielders in the Midwest and has all the tools to be one of the top players in the Midwest.”
When he’s not pitching, Juenger will be at third base, and Portz called him the team’s most valuable and versatile player at the position last year. Overall, Juenger batted .359 with 23 RBIs from the No. 3 slot last year.
Junior Jake Holan (.325) will tackle third base duties when Juenger pitches.
“Jake saw limited time last year as a junior but is a very good baseball player who brings a lot to our team,” Portz said.
Senior Jared Dalonzo will round out the infield. He returns after missing the 2017 campaign due to Tommy John surgery, and Portz said Dalonzo can play any infield position.
In the outfield
Portz will count on senior Caleb Shelton (.273) in left. Shelton is a four-year letter winner, and saw significant outfield time the last two years. Arnold (.333, 26 RBIs) also will see time at that spot.
Senior Nick Boone has centerfield duties, while classmate Quinn Lowery (.345, 14 RBIs) will be in right field.
“Nick returns after gaining very good experience as a junior,” Portz said. “One of the fastest players in the state, Nick brings a lot to the table as a player. Quinn hit in our two hole last year and had a great season. He is the epitome of what we want out of our players. Quinn displays constant attention to detail, hustle and passion for the game in every action.”
The designated hitter slot will be a combination of players to include Dreyer, Arnold and Holan.
Other team members include sophomore Logan Lowery (infielder/pitcher) and juniors Luke Biehn (infielder), Wes Collins (outfielder/first base/pitcher), TJ Morgan (outfielder) and Tyler Stanton (outfielder).
One tough schedule
The Panthers have a rigorous schedule.
“At the end of the day, our club is going to have to perform well against some very good opponents. You hope that your guys are up to the task and able to avoid injury throughout the year,” Portz said.
Besides the general strength and depth of the Southwestern Conference, O’Fallon faces several tough non-conference obstacles, including the season-opening Kick Off Classic event that the Panthers host and run.
Tournament venues include Blazier Field in O’Fallon, GCS Ballpark in Sauget, Belleville East High School, Tom Pile Field in Edwardsville, the junior varsity field at Edwardsville High School, and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. OTHS was scheduled to open tourney action Wednesday (March 14) against Mater Dei. After an off day Thursday (March 15), O’Fallon is scheduled to face Oak Forrest at 7 p.m. Friday (March 16) and Brother Rice at 3 p.m. Saturday (March 17), both at Blazier Field.
“This has become one of the top events in the Midwest,” Portz said. “Our schedule is very competitive. Every year, we feel that we are battle tested by the time the postseason comes around. We will be testing every Tuesday and Thursday in our league games, and our non-conference schedule consists of some of the best programs in the Midwest.”