Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

March 16, 2013

63rd District Baseball Preview: Double the fun

Teams will try two-game series this season

Aaron Snyder
The Independent

ASHLAND — The newly seeded 63rd District will offer a different kind of double play this season.

Greenup County, Lewis County, Raceland and Russell will play one another on back-to-back days throughout the season in two-game mini-series. They are each scheduled in a Monday-Tuesday, home-away format.

Russell ninth-year coach Mike Martino proposed the idea.

“I think it’s the most fair way to do it,” Martino said. “You can’t really save a pitcher, although you still have the option of doing so. If you just have one pitcher, you might want to come in fourth (place) and use him in the district.”

But the team in fourth would play the No. 1 seed, unlike in past seasons. Greenup County coach Greg Logan and Lewis County coach Keith Prater are in favor of the seeding modification, along with Martino. Because of the draw, the past method of determining 63rd seeds, the Lions and Musketeers met in the first round of the district tournament last season despite being the top two teams based on regular-season play.

“I like that every game means something,” said Prater, who guided the Lions to 25-6 season that ended in the 16th Region Tournament semifinals in 2012. They beat Greenup County three times en route to a district championship.

Twenty-seventh-year coach Randy Vanderhoof of Raceland, the smallest school in the district, strongly opposes seeding.

“It favors the large schools,” Vanderhoof said. “They cut more kids than we have come out to play.”

Both a Greenup County-Russell series and a Lewis County-Raceland series are slated for Monday and Tuesday.

“Opening day means a whole lot more now,” said Logan, who had guided Greenup County to 34 straight district wins before Lewis County snapped the streak last season.

Greenup County won three 16th Region titles in Logan’s first four seasons as coach. The last two have been somewhat disappointing for the Musketeers — they had a region tournament first-round exit in 2011 and then a district first-round defeat last season.

“Last year was the first year we really sunk to rock bottom,” Logan said. “I got to announce a regional tournament game with (WLGC broadcaster) Jim Forrest. Nothing against Jim, but that’s about as low as it gets for a coach.”

To re-emerge as region contenders, Greenup County will rely mainly on seniors Seth Boyle, Will McCall and Zac Hutchinson. Boyle and McCall are the top two arms while Hutchinson catches and pitches.

“With those three guys leading the staff, I’m counting on them,” Logan said. “They’ve really got to step it up. It’s their time.”

Casey Stiltner is another one of seven seniors Logan is depending on. Eighth-grader Tristan Downing is one of several talented young players in the Musketeers’ program. Downing turned in a remarkable varsity season a year ago as a seventh-grader. He plays first base and pitcher and figures to be a mainstay in the lineup.

“He can probably hit anywhere in the lineup,” Logan said of Downing. “He’s a free swinger. He could make a huge contribution on the pitcher’s mound, too.”

Returning virtually its entire pitching staff is Lewis County. The Lions’ top three are junior Sammy Holder, sophomore Jordan Davis and senior Cory Christy.

“Looking at it on paper, Lewis County is probably the favorites in the district,” Logan said. “They didn’t lose a whole lot.”

The Lions do have one substantial hole to fill — catcher/captain Kasey Riley graduated. Jordan McCann and Gavin Grayson could each see time behind the plate.

Six hitters return to the lineup, said Prater, who beefed up the schedule to help his team prepare for the postseason.

“Our schedule is probably the toughest Lewis County has ever played,” he said. “Last year we were 25-6, and lost to Boyd County who was 19-19 (in the region tournament),” Prater said. “They showed us how to play. Not a day goes by where they’re not challenged (on their schedule).”

Prater said Isaac Weddington, Devon Duncan and Brett Wampler could all pitch. He looks for seniors Levi Clark and Nick Thompson to be forces in the lineup.

Russell won 10 of its last 16 games last season, one that ended with a nailbiting one-run loss to eventual champion Ashland in the region semifinals.

“(That success) will carry over as long as our seniors are excited about it,” Martino said.

Included in that senior group are Joel Mullen, Dylan Howard, Troy Huffine, J.D. Pridemore and Bryant Cathey.

Huffine batted a team-best .414 last season. Having suffered a bone break in his wrist while playing football, Huffine may make the move from second base to left field, said Martino.

“We don’t want to chance taking his bat out of the lineup,” Martino said. “In the infield, he’s throwing all the time and there’s a possibility of someone sliding into him or something.”

Pridemore, at center field, is another “spark plug” as Martino called him.

Cathey, coming off knee surgery, will likely catch or be the designated hitter. He hit .407 last season. Elijah Hamilton is the backup catcher in the case Cathey runs into knee issues.

Howard is a three-year starter who “runs like the wind,” said Martino. Russell’s starting third baseman also offers a low-80s (mph) fastball.

Mullen, the team’s ace, threw well in big games last season. Martino also expects a lot from lefty Alex Jones.

Raceland nearly knocked off the Red Devils in the district tournament in both 2012 and 2010.

Therefore, Vanderhoof’s main preaching point has been this: “Finish games.”

“We’ve got to learn to play the sixth and the seventh (innings),” said the longtime coach. “We just have to be mentally tougher.”

The Rams return senior starting pitcher Zayne Sammons, who has played varsity since eighth grade. “Not much fazes him,” Vanderhoof said.

Catcher/middle infielder Ryan Tolliver and second baseman Freddie Shepherd will be key senior leaders if the young Rams are to have success.

AARON SNYDER can be reached at asnyder@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2664.