NEW PALESTINE — From the outside looking in, some might assume the cupboard is bare after New Palestine graduated nearly a dozen seniors and seven varsity regulars from last year’s roster.
But head coach Shawn Lyons and his staff don’t necessarily agree with that assessment.
With four varsity starters back and a crop of talented underclassmen “champing at the bit,” the veteran coach doesn’t see lineup holes to fill. He sees opportunities to seize.
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“The seniors will get the first chance to fail, and hopefully, they don’t, but we have youngsters knocking on the door,” Lyons said. “We graduated 10 seniors from last year, so we’re competing and we have some really good young kids waiting for a chance.”
The centerpiece to the Dragons’ reload in 2017 gravitates around senior Keegan Watson, a two-time Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association All-State selection. A Nebraska recruit, Watson is penciled in to see time in the outfield, first base and on the mound, where he now ascends to the top of the rotation.
As a junior, the 2017 Rawlings-Perfect Game honorable mention All-American was 3-3 with a 3.23 ERA and racked up 64 strikeouts in 39 innings pitched.
He will look to pick up where he left off after the graduation of former ace Zachary Lovell, who was 7-2 with a 1.83 ERA for the Hoosier Heritage Conference champion Dragons.
At the plate, Watson plans to continue his strong hitting, which has been customary since he hit .491 as a freshman. Posting a .449 batting average as a sophomore, the All-HHC selection carried a .402 average last season with 29 RBI and a career-best nine home runs to lead 3A.
“Keegan is Keegan,” Lyons said. “But it’s not all about him, and he knows that. He can go 0-for-4, and we can win or he can go 4-for-4, and we can still lose. We have to pick it up around him, and I think we will.”
Two projected on-field leaders and offensive producers around Watson are senior Jacob Smith and junior Nick Rusche.
Smith, who was sidelined 10 games last year due to an ankle and knee injury is finally 100 percent and will split time at catcher and in the outfield. Despite his setbacks last spring, he hit .333 with 14 RBI and three doubles, including a clutch walk-off extra-base knock to help the Dragons win a crucial HHC game against league runner-up Pendleton Heights.
“It feels great, honestly, being healthy and out here. It’s my senior season. I just want to go out with a bang. I’m ready to get it done with these guys,” said Smith, who is signed with Concordia University in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“We really want to bring these guys together. These underclassmen, we want to take them under our wing and guide them along. Leave that legacy.”
Rusche returns at shortstop. He hit .312 as a sophomore and has impressed this preseason both defensively and offensively. Rusche had four stolen bases in five attempts last season and is focused on pushing the issue as a catalyst for the team.
“Since we were pretty successful last year, and we have a lot of bats in the lineup, I think expectations are high, especially for us offensively,” Rusche said. “Our first priority is to get on base. We have people in the lineup that are capable of driving in a lot of runs.”
At second base, seniors Andrew Roberts and Jarrett Jacques are battling for the starting job, while Kyle Gardner, a junior, and sophomore Jack Walker are vying for the nod at first base.
Senior Jacob Hickman is set to take over at third base. The outfield is deep and fluid, Lyons said, with six players competing for time, including senior Tyler Martin, junior Cameron Pitzer, junior Myles Kost and possibly junior Tyler Swain, who is out with a foot injury.
“We have a lot of unanswered questions, which is typical, but we’ll figure it out.
“With our schedule and our conference, we’ll hopefully figure it out by the middle of May,” Lyons said.
Pitching is less of a conundrum at the top where Gardner will file in behind Watson after a solid non-conference campaign in 2016. The right-hander went 6-1 with a 1.62 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 39 innings.
Jacques (3.55 ERA), Pitzer, Swain, Martin, junior Jacob Garrison, and Walker give the Dragons match-up options to consider against a tough HHC and non-conference schedule that includes preseason No. 3 Brebeuf Jesuit.
The Dragons lost to Brebeuf 9-5 in the sectional semifinals last year and enter the season ranked seventh in the preseason polls.
“It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish,” Lyons said. “Last year, none of the top 10 schools were in the state finals. We know we have a target on our back, and that’s fine. That’s just part of it and the reputation of the program here. We talk about it and thrive on it.”
Avenging their loss to Brebeuf is a motivator, said Watson, after the Braves halted the Dragons quest at a third straight sectional title last spring. The key is belief, Watson emphasized, and maintaining tradition.
New Palestine won their sixth overall regional title in 2014 and 16th sectional championship in 2015 — its sixth since 2008. Its HHC title in 2016 was the program’s ninth since 2004.
“I think everyone is a threat. There’s no one individual darkhorse on this team,” Watson said. “Everyone is a threat to hit and a threat to get on base. Our pitching staff should be pretty good this year, too. This is a good group, and we’re ready to step up.”
The Dragons open the season on Monday at Martinsville with four road games before hosting Knightstown on April 13.
Team: New Palestine
Coach: Shawn Lyons
2016 Record: 19-10
2016 Results: The Class 3A Dragons won the Hoosier Heritage Conference for a ninth time since 2004 with a 10-4 league record, fending off both Mt. Vernon and Pendleton Heights in the standings. New Palestine, which was ranked seventh in the state, finished 19-10 after losing to No. 5 Brebeuf Jesuit in the sectional semifinals 9-5.
Key Losses: Evan Fitzgerald, Cody Long, Braden Roberts, Jason Hall-Manley, Zach Lovell, Patrick Hopkins, Caleb VanderWal.
Key Returnees: Keegan Watson (12), Jarrett Jacques (12), Jacob Hickman (12), Jacob Smith (12), Nick Rusche (11), Kyle Gardner (11), Colby Jenkins (10), Andrew Roberts (12), Tyler Martin (12), Tyler Swain (11).