By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
Hunter Harrison is about to become the hunted, along with his Hilldale teammates.
No matter the holes — there are a few — to fill, they’ve got the state championship banner and trophy, and opponents know this.
The Kings of Sting need to be ready.
“Definitely,” he said. “We’re going to have to go out there and expect a war every day. We’re going to get the best from everybody we face and we’ll have to be ready to give it back.”
It’s a situation he’s familiar with.
Harrison (12-1, 1.58 ERA) won five playoff games including a four-hit, 2-1 victory over Berryhill in the Class 4A title game, and leads a core of returning starters that includes speedy center fielder Miles Jackson (.341, 5 triples) and left fielder Scott Rodden to go along with the middle of the Hornets infield – shortstop Colby Mullens and second baseman Matthew Bargsten.
“He leads by example in the way he plays,” Riddle said. “You can’t say enough about what he did for us in the postseason and he followed that with a good summer and he’s going to determine a lot of our success this year.”
With Jackson and Rodden in the outfield and the middle of the infield set, the defense Riddle puts on the field is solid.
“We’ve got some holes to fill but we’re going to put the work in needed to get there,” said Jackson.
The biggest question is at catcher and plugging the middle of an offense that lost its 3, 4, 5 and 9-hole hitters from 2012.
One of those missing is Jarrard Poteete, the MVP of the All-Phoenix team and a four-year starter behind the plate. Still competing for that spot is a couple of freshmen – Isaac Isham, who worked there on the Hornets’ summer team, and Aaron Sanders – and Seth Hurd, a junior, who is recovering from a broken wrist.
“We lost a lot of offense and that’s definitely a place we’ll miss Jarrard,” Riddle said. “His experience behind the plate is something we can’t replace either. We call the pitches from the dugout so it’s not a game-management thing as much as it is having an arm that gets the attention of baserunners and keeps the pitcher from having to worry about that. The kids we’ve got competing have that, they just don’t have the experience at this level.”
The one most likely to be affected by this is Harrison, along with Deven Riede, at this point perhaps the No. 2 arm.
“With Jarrard, you knew there was never a doubt if he came out there and wanted something done with a batter or in any situation, whether it was a pitch or not, you knew he knew what needed to be done,” Harrison said. “These guys will get there with experience. But where Jarrard was also the vocal leader out there, when I’m on the field I know, especially being a senior, that’s going to be a role I need to fill.”
Overall, there’s enough pieces in place to keep the Hornets in the conversation for a possible repeat championship.
“By the time we have to start thinking about playoffs, I’m hoping we are,” Riddle said. “But we’re going to be young in a lot of places to start and that’s going to show for awhile.”
That would somewhat fit in with last year’s pattern. The Hornets finished the year winning 13 of 14 to end at 27-7.
Vian has seven starters back from a 26-13 team that lost in the regional finals against Metro Christian. Shortstop Landon Decker (.390, 40 RBIs) and pitcher Shawn Troutman (8-2, 2.16 ERA, 56 strikeouts in 55 innings). Catcher Dan Weer will be counted on heavily behind the plate.
“These seniors should be pretty hungry,” Wolverines coach John Brockman said, noting close calls by this same core group in football and wrestling.
Oktaha didn’t have their targeted starting lineup playing together until the postseason a year ago. The Tigers under then-first year coach Michael Adair ended up in the 2A quarterfinals, losing to Wister.
“If we stay healthy, we can get there again,” said Adair, minus five seniors from that team.
Lefty Jordan Webb started in that game. In the fall he shutout perennial power Dale 2-0.
He’ll have his battery mate in Caleb Shoemake, a .460 hitter in the fall after hitting in the low 300s in the spring. Justin Capps in left field (.370 fall) and Josh Bible position came off bench in state. Most welcome will be shortstop Austin Chandler, who sat out on the transfer rule as a freshman then injured his arm as a sophomore and ended up having Tommy John surgery along with a follow-up surgery for repairs to the original surgery. He has yet to play but Adair expects big contribution from him.
Nick Zodrow’s Tigers at have eight starters back from 2012 and appear in position for a run at a 5A state berth and possibly more. Houston Gladd was a sophomore in his pitching rotation and the junior is getting attention from both Oklahoma State and Stanford, among others. Gladd is a younger brother of Gunter Gladd, who played at Union and spent time in the Minnesota Twins’ system
“His fastball will hit the 90s sometime this season but the big thing about him is he’s got good command of about five different pitches,” Zodrow said.
First baseman Connor Mutzig (.410, 6 doubles, 7 stolen bases) will be an anchor in the middle of the batting order. Steven Wheeler had a 3.35 ERA as part of Zodrow’s rotation a year ago.
Former Jenks assistant Jeremy Griffin has embarked on a facelift of the program at Muskogee — new uniforms, a new infield and warning track around the outfield wall, new bleachers and a new-look locker room. It’s also about instilling a new attitude in his players, who were 12-20 a year ago.
“The administration has been very supportive of these changes and the kids have seen how much everyone has bought in and they’ve followed suit,” he said.
Tyler Bowden has signed with Southern Arkansas as a pitcher. Ethan Barton, Harris Jones and Dakota Morse are returning infielders and Garrett Brown and Cody Floyd have have solidified themselves in the outfield and Trey Gatzman is behind the plate.
Griffin doesn’t want to accept simply being competitive, or, as was the case last year in multiple games, just avoiding a run-rule loss.
“I want these guys to have the mindset that they’re good enough to go win a state championship,” he said.
That’s half the battle.
Bulldogs coach James Henson, missing the middle of the defense thanks to graduation and that includes one of the area’s top pitchers in Justin Ferrell. But five starters are back and Wyat Grooms, last year’s Phoenix Newcomer of the Year as a sophomore, hit .390 and will take up some of that pitching slack, joining Bradley Green (7-3, 3.00 ERA) on the mound when not playing first base.
7. Fort Gibson
Fort Gibson opens with Hilldale on Friday and Tigers coach Randy Smith, who enters his 25th year with 741 wins, eighth all-time among Oklahoma baseball coaches, would like to see it pushed back — and not because he happens to be facing the defending champs.
Weather which looms as a threat to wipe out the opener is the reason.
“I’ve been on the board for the last seven years and every year I’ve proposed and it’s passed our (group) to move baseball two weeks back to try and help prevent these types of situations and the constant conflicts with basketball,” Smith said. “And it never gets passed at the top so I guess it never will.”
When they get going, the Tigers, 18-16 a year ago and missing state for the first time since 2007, are light on experience. Cody Beaver, his top returning infielder, transferred to Metro Christian. Smith is hoping Ned Adair, who was second on the team in hitting, will be out after basketball.
Smith will rely on his pitching to lead the effort. Eric Hudson (4-2, 1.70 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 49 innings) is the expected ace. Adair was (4-4, 1.20) also brings some mound experience.
“We’ve got some other kids (Colton Dorris, Tristan Johnson) who can throw but we won’t be like we have been in past years where we’re four-deep in starters. It’s guys who can be good but they’ll throw a few innings at a time,” Smith said.
Eufaula lost heavy off the core of its team that had produced two state finalists and barely missed a third trip to state a year ago, but a core of kids who have played behind that group will get their chance to sneak up on someone under new coach Victor Paden. ... Sequoyah has a pair of Northeastern State signees in Karter Woodruff and Ryan Helsley that will help the Indians to try and get over the regional hump that’s been consistently in its way in recent years. ... Warner has a core of returning starters in Tim Smithson (.506) and Cody Doffman (.369) in its infield from a team that won 25 games a year ago.
Others to watch:
Among the other top area players returning are Colton Shearwood, SS, Stigler, Sr. (.441 BA); Austin Tarver, SS, Keys, Jr.; Chance Douthit, 1B, Gore, Sr. (.384 BA) and Kolby Clay, SS, Gore, Sr. (.459 BA).
Though some area teams don’t begin until next week, at least four openers are set for Friday — Fort Gibson at Hilldale, Sapulpa at Muskogee, Braggs at Warner and Vinita at Wagoner. All but Braggs-Warner are 4:30 starts; that one at 4.