The 16th Region baseball tournament served up Ashland-Boyd County championship games the past two years.
Could there be a third on deck?
Don’t be surprised, considering both teams are stocked with returning talent despite losing ace pitchers — Ashland’s Sam Hunter to Marshall University and Boyd County’s Trey Salisbury to Eastern Kentucky.
Ashland, the defending region champion, will look to 2012 All-Area Player of the Year Logan Salow and several other proven holdovers such as Cade O’Bryan, Aaron Elam and Evan Yongue.
Boyd County started seven freshmen in last year’s region tournament — by coach Brandon Ramsey’s count — and added some pop to the lineup with transfer Jake Cook.
The two teams, guided by veteran head coaches, are counting on deep pitching staffs to help carry them through the spring and back to the postseason.
“It’s great competition,” Tomcat coach Jeff Wilcox said of the rivalry. “Their coaching does a good job. Boyd County’s pitching is always strong. We have great games with them and we expect that to continue.”
Boyd County defeated Ashland 4-1 for the 2011 region title. Last year, the Lions won their matchup in the district final but the Tomcats prevailed 3-2 for the region crown and went on to reach the state’s Elite Eight.
Junior-dominated Ashland is looking to build another winner while preparing its Alumni Field to host the district and region tournaments.
“We’re having some good things happen to our field,” Wilcox said of a new scoreboard and new metal bleachers. “They are hoping by the time spring break is over they will have everything completed.”
In the meantime, the Tomcats have moved several of their home games to Central Park.
Ashland‘s scheduled home opener Thursday against Lewis County was cancelled due to cold weather. The Tomcats will host Fleming County on Saturday at 1 p.m.
Even without Hunter around, Wilcox has high hopes for Ashland’s pitching staff.
“Sam won 10 games (last season),” Wilcox said. ”I think we have a couple that could win 10, but overall I think the pitching will be better than last year, barring injury.”
Salow posted six wins last season while averaging better than two strikeouts per inning. Yongue went 5-2 and Elam 4-0 for the Tomcats. Evan Cox moves from third base to shortstop and will also get an opportunity to pitch. Senior Jake Hall is healthy after hurting his elbow during last year’s spring break trip to Florida.
“You look at Logan, both Evans, Aaron and Jake, those are quality arms that hopefully will do a great job for us,” Wilcox said. “Several other guys are throwing too.”
O’Bryan, Salow and Elam spearhead the offense. O’Bryan batted .380, including 11 doubles, through last year’s region tournament and finished the season with 34 RBI. He switches from outfield to third base this season and will also see action at first base.
Elam, an All-Area selection, sported a .345 average with three homers among his 15 extra-base hits. He collected two hits in each of the Tomcats’ State Tournament games and drove in 35 runs overall.
“He’s turning into a great defensive first baseman who hits the ball very well,” Wilcox said.
Salow batted just under .350 to go with his strong pitching and outstanding defense in center field.
“If Logan’s not the best outfielder around, I would like to see who is,” Wilcox said. “He has a strong arm, gets to the ball quickly and gets rid of it quickly.
Other outfielders will be Austin Kelley, Hall, O’Bryan, Yongue, Taylor Bradley, Hunter Boggs and MJ Woods.
Junior catcher Cameron Fritz, known for his defensive play, is looking forward to contributing more at the plate after playing hurt much of last season.
“It’s going to be a pleasure to have his bat in the lineup,” Wilcox said. “He had a great offseason.”
Junior Jared Slone is the returning starter at second base. Matt Vincent and Cody Conley add infield depth, while Pete Mullins will help out at catcher.
Boyd County, off to a 2-0 start, has high expectations after its large sophomore class got a chance to grow up in a hurry as freshmen.
“I think it gave them confidence more than anything,” Ramsey said. “Now that they are bigger and stronger, they feel more confident about themselves, and what they accomplished last year.”
Ramsey’s greatest task may be juggling his pitchers and finding playing time for everybody he would like to get on the field.
“I think our depth is the thing I like best,” he said. “Guys will fill in and we will not miss a beat. As far as pitching, in preseason and intrasquad we were throwing 14 people.”
The main ones figure to be Billy McCoy, Robbie Shivel, Dylan Grimm, Jason Anders and Zack Patton. Cook, Trey Johnson, Evan Crum and Slone Alley are also in the mix.
That’s not even counting senior Corey Sublett, who is working his way back from a torn ACL and “will be a big help” according to Ramsey. Even Jacob Barnwell, the Lions’ talented sophomore catcher, has been pitching some short relief.
McCoy (junior) and Shivel (senior) pitched in the 2012 region tournament, while Anders got the win in the district final in relief. Boyd County opened the new season with a 3-1 win at Pikeville as McCoy worked six innings.
“There are a lof of options,” Ramsey said of his pitchers. “Nobody is going to dominate like Trey did, but everybody else is back. We throw strikes and our defense will be a big help to the pitchers.”
That defense includes Barnwell, whose strong throwing arm behind the plate tends to discourage opponents from stealing bases or even getting far off the bag.
“I think he picked off 12 guys last year,” Ramsey said.
Offensively, the Lions coach likes to pencil Barnwell into the cleanup spot and Shivel at the top of the order. Shivel batted about .400 in that role last year and was aggressive on the base paths.
“He stole a lot of bases,” Ramsey said. “We’re looking for more of that this season. Robbie is the kind of player that gets the team going.”
Barnwell had two hits and drove in a pair of runs at Pikeville, then hardly saw a pitch to hit while walking three times against Rowan County.
The Lions hope to keep Barnwell a little fresher this spring after he caught all but one inning last year. Boyd has a good backup in Patton, who missed last season with a broken leg after he was expected to be the starting catcher.
Overall, Ramsey said the lineup may have different looks from game to game with several players vying for playing time.
Cook, a junior first baseman, made a big impression in his first home game in a Boyd County uniform. He went 4-for-4 against Rowan County, beginning with a three-run homer. Cook hit RBI doubles in his next two trips to the plate.
“He’s fit in really well,” Ramsey said.
Sophomore outfielder Dylan Grimm added three hits and scored three runs as the Lions notched the 1,000th win in school history.
Shortstop Tanner Bryan, second baseman Jordan Smith, and outfielders Matt Blakeley and Zane Purscelley are some of the other members of that sophomore group.
“In the offseason, even at the end of last season, there were some guys that came on,” Ramsey said. “Grimm, Blakeley and Crum all turned themselves into pretty good hitters.”
Bryan’s calling card is his glovework.
“He kind of solidified our defense,” Ramsey said. “It’s nice to have a shortstop that when it’s hit in his direction, you know somebody is going to be out.”
Smith stole four bases in the game at Pikeville, while Blakely’s RBI double helped Boyd County get off to a strong start against Rowan. Purscelley, who started in the region tournament, can run and slap the ball around.
Outfielder Trevor Mullins had a run-scoring single in the Lions’ second game, and infielder Corey Harper provides a left-handed bat off the bench.
Fairview, 14-19 last season, is the defending All “A” region champ and will look to top returners Brandon “Bam Bam” McDaniel, catcher Johnathan Burke and pitcher Taylor Freeman to lead the way.
McDaniel batted .444 with 37 RBI as a junior to earn All-Area honors.
Coach Terry Thompson likes the team’s competitive fire despite losing five starters.
“We do have some very talented younger players, and as a coach you love seeing the hard workouts and fierce attitudes that are competing for these positions,” he said.
Freeman, Cody Sammons, Kyle Stormes and Austin Harris lead the pitching staff.
Thompson said Joel Wardle and Sammons will be used in the designated-hitter role. Wes Williams, Alex Roy, Caleb McKnight, Josh Russell, Caleb Porter, Jesse Menshouse and Blake Smith are competing for the remaining infield positions.
Outfield candidates include Stormes, Josh Barber, Harris, Andrew Carroll, Freeman and Braden Johnson.
Rose Hill Christian, the other member of the 64th, is restarting a baseball program this season under coach Jim Shelton but will not compete in the district. The Royals, with five seventh-graders and an eighth-grader making up half the roster, plan to play a mix of JV and varsity games.
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