Team: New Palestine
Coach: Shawn Lyons, fifth season
2015 record: 21-12
2015 results: 8-6 in the Hoosier Heritage Conference, beat Brebeuf Jesuit 4-1 in sectional championship game, lost 8-3 to West Vigo in regional finals.
Story continues below gallery
Key losses: Wes McBride, Tyler Woodcock, Andy Edwards, Cody Chandler, Evan Hickman, Hogan Fulkerson
Jacob Smith, Jr., C
Colby Jenkins, Fr., C/3B
Keegan Watson, Jr., 1B/P
Caleb Vanderwal, Sr., 2B
Jarrett Jaques, Jr., 2B/P
Jacob Hickman, Jr., 3B
Nick Rusche, Soph., SS
Jason Hall-Manley, Sr., LF
Evan Fitzgerald, Sr., CF
Braden Roberts, Sr., LF
James Crumlin, Sr., RF
Patrick Hopkins, Sr., 1B/P
Zachary Lovell, Sr., P/3B/1B
Trent Rush, Sr., P
Kyle Gardner, Soph., P
NEW PALESTINE — Tradition has no calendar at New Palestine.
The month of May might mean more than most for the Class 3A Dragons with three sectional championships and a pair of regional titles in the past four years, but in reality the season never truly ends.
“Our goal when we start, and this goes back to coach (Marvin) Shepler’s days and coach (Al) Cooper’s days, is we feel like we can win the state championship,” New Palestine head baseball coach Shawn Lyons said. “That helps in our winter workouts and conditioning because it’s something our players strive for every day.
“It’s because it’s been part of our tradition.”
New Palestine hasn’t won a state championship since its first in 2004, a season after taking runner-up, but with three semistate appearances in six years, and a near miss last season in the regional final against West Vigo, it’s not from a lack of trying.
Winning semistate means a team is playing its best baseball, collectively, in the state tournament, said Lyons, something his players are fixated on achieving this spring.
Only one problem, though. Who’s going to crack the starting lineup?
“We have about 13 guys fighting for nine positions,” Lyons said. “We just have so many unanswered questions. The closer to the season we get, it’s suppose to become clearer to you as a coaching staff, but we have a lot of good questions. Good problems to have.”
The program’s depth is talented and, much like its preparation, never ending.
Seven players return with varsity experience from last year’s sectional championship roster, including two of the team’s best hitters.
Keegan Watson, who participated in the Future Games as part of Team Indiana in 2015, is a guaranteed lock to bat third in the order. As a sophomore, the 6-foot-2 top prospect hit .449 with 30 RBIs, 38 runs scored and 13 doubles to earn all-conference and county player of the year honors.
Right behind him will be all-conference senior Jason Hall-Manley, who clubbed four home runs with 31 RBIs and a .341 batting average.
“Some teams are going to have to pick their poison,” Lyons said. “Jason has had a really good winter for us in the weight room and has hit the ball pretty far in this spring. We hope the guys in front of them get on as well, so there are RBI opportunities.”
Left fielder Braden Roberts (.328, 16 RBIs), a senior, is coming off shoulder surgery but is making solid contact with his swing this spring. He could hit out of the two hole to start the season, and center fielder Even Fitzgerald (.375), another senior, is projected to open at leadoff.
“Patrick Hopkins, we’re excited about him, too. He’s coming back off an arm injury. He had a great winter. Great work ethic. Great kid that wants its so bad,” Lyons said. “We think he’s going to be a surprise.”
Another potential star in the making is freshman catcher/infielder Colby Jenkins, one of several freshman Lyons thinks could push for playing time.
“As soon as he believes in himself, he’s going to take off because he’s pretty special,” Lyons said when referring to the 5-10 Jenkins. “We see it in workouts. He’s a great catcher and infielder with a lot of speed. He might be the fastest kid in our program.”
Nick Rusche, a sophomore, has the inside track at shortstop, carrying on a tradition of his own with his brothers Brad, Adam and father, Steve all playing middle infield as Dragons.
Jacob Hickman, junior, is battling for third base while senior Caleb Vanderwal (.500) is set at second base along with junior Jacob Smith at catcher.
The good complications could pay off on the mound, Lyons said, as the Dragons have six capable arms to spread across it’s doubleheader conference and daunting regular-season schedule.
“We have a lot of midweeks with (Class 4A No. 3) Cathedral, Roncalli, Brebeuf Jesuit, Fishers. We don’t dodge anybody in the midweek. Obviously, we can’t throw our conference pitcher, so maybe our record will be challenged a little bit because of our midweek experience,” Lyons said.
Zachary Lovell is the ace after going 5-4 with a 2.98 ERA as a junior last year. The right-handed Franklin College recruit had 63 strikeouts in 54 innings pitched.
Watson, who touched 87-89 mph last fall for Team Indiana, will back up Lovell in the rotation. Hopkins, sophomore Kyle Gardner, senior Trent Rush and sophomore Jarrett Jacques will see innings throughout the year.
“Some of our infield and our pitchers are going to be new, and we know they’re talented, so once they believe in themselves, we’ll be the benefactor of that,” Lyons said. “We just hope they stick with it. We need to be playing our best baseball in May.”
If the Dragons can find their rhythm through the regular season’s 28 games over seven weeks, which starts at Martinsville on Monday, Lyons believes things will fall into place now and later, including the elusive.
“We’d like to win our conference. We have so much respect for our conference,” said Lyons, whose team went 8-6 for third in the Hoosier Heritage Conference. “I challenged our seniors because they have not won a conference, so that’s something they’re trying to achieve. We feel like our conference gets us ready for the tournament.”
April 4: at Martinsville, 5:30 p.m.
April 5: vs. Batesville, 5:30 p.m.
April 8: vs. Shelbyville, 5:30 p.m.
April 11: vs. Perry Meridian, 5 p.m.
April 15: at Yorktown, 5:30 p.m.
April 18: at Whiteland, 5:30 p.m.
April 20: vs. Roncalli, 5:30 p.m.
April 21: at Mt. Vernon, 5 p.m.
April 22: at Guerin Catholic, 7:30 p.m.
April 27: vs. Cathedral, 5:30 p.m.
April 28: vs. Connersville, 5:30 p.m.
April 29: vs. Greenfield-Central, 5:30 p.m.
May 2: vs. Warren Central, 5:30 p.m.
May 3: at Centerville, 5:30 p.m.
May 7: at Delta, 10 a.m.
May 9: at Fishers, 5:30 p.m.
May 12: vs. Franklin Central, 5:30 p.m.
May 13: vs. Pendleton Heights, 5:30 p.m.
May 16: at Brebeuf Jesuit, 6 p.m.
May 19: vs. Greenwood, 5:30 p.m.
May 20: vs. New Castle, 5:30 p.m.