CHARLOTTESVILLE — Strong starting pitching and depth across the lineup goes a long way in high school baseball. Eastern Hancock will have both this season.
With the loss of just three seniors from last year’s 15-win club, the Royals return several key positions in what has the potential to be a promising season for Eastern Hancock and head coach Chad Coughenour.
To better prepare his team for the state tournament, Coughenour shifted his attention to Royals’ schedule during the offseason. Last year, Eastern Hancock lost 15-5 to Heritage Christian in the sectional championship to end its season.
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The Royals began the year losing five of six games before a six-game win streak carried the team through April. Eastern Hancock won its last two games of the regular season before topping Triton Central and Irvington Prep to begin tournament play.
“We wanted to challenge our kids a little more for tournament time,” Coughenour said, who is in his 12th season the program. “We should really compete; this team doesn’t quit. We want to be a team that can grind it out.”
Eastern Hancock lost its starting shortstop, first baseman and center fielder, Dwight Duzan, Tom Barton and Garek Ferguson, to graduation but returns every other position. Barton and Ferguson each hit over .400 last season, but the Royals bring back seven players who hit .300 or better, led by Devin Denny (.420, 37 hits).
And with senior Clayton White and junior Andrew Knoblock returning to the mound, Eastern Hancock will be able to win games with both its offense and defense.
White was 7-2 in nine starts as a junior and finished with 32 strikeouts and a 2.84 ERA. Knoblock threw a no-hitter and finished 4-4 overall as a sophomore to go with his 3.21 ERA. He also added a team-high 46 strikeouts and walked just 10 batters.
“I have a ton of faith in the pitching we have,” said Denny, who also finished with nine doubles and 23 RBI as a junior. “Our two main pitchers from last year were working with Anderson (University) the whole offseason.
“(Summer workouts) were a good mix of offense and defense. We did some team bonding things with people hanging out together more.”
Denny (2-1) and junior A.J. Muegge (2-2) also will see time on the mound. Denny finished with 13 strikeouts in 17 innings of work last season, while Muegge totaled 16 strikeouts in 18.2 innings.
Another positive, pitching wise, according to Coughenour, is the return of the team’s starting catcher — junior Jarett Lewis. Lewis, who is also the starting quarterback for the football team, brings stability and leadership behind the plate. He committed just six errors last season and finished with a .957 fielding percentage (141 chances).
Lewis’ offensive numbers, according to his coach, should improve dramatically this season, too. He finished with 13 hits, 21 runs and five doubles as a sophomore.
“(Lewis) does a very good job back there receiving the ball,” Coughenour said. “The kids who throw have a lot of confidence in him.”
Junior Payton Wilkinson, a speedy wide receiver on the football team, will roam center field in place of Ferguson, while junior Addison True will move from second base to shortstop in place of Duzan.
Junior Easton Fields, a left-handed batter who hit .556 in limited appearances a year ago, will handle the second basemen duties. White, Knockblock and junior Jake Barton will man first base in place of Barton.
True, who hit .367 as a sophomore, finished with a team-high five triples. He also hit one home run and added 29 hits, 24 RBI and 20 runs scored. Muegge, another multi-sport standout, also was highly productive as a sophomore, hitting .364 to go with 24 runs and 24 RBI. Levi Majority, a senior outfielder, also contributed last year with 24 hits and 18 RBI.
“We have so much team speed and don’t really have any power hitters this year,” Coughenour said. “We have guys who will hit gap to gap.”
Having played in several competitive games against quality opponents last season, Coughenour simply believes being a year older and wiser will be enough to help get over the hump in tough situations. He added Cardinal Ritter, who won a sectional last season, to the team’s schedule, as well as Indianapolis Lutheran. The Royals, who will not compete in a conference this season, also will play in a tournament in Mooresville.
“Not being in a conference this year will allow us to control how we want to throw our pitchers and build towards the sectional at the end of the year,” Coughenour said. “With the team we have coming back, hopefully we will be able to progress along that line and get back there.”
Denny, in his final high school sports season, has high hopes too.
“We’re confident in our skills and our craft,” he said. “I want big things from us this year. I’m expecting us to be back in the sectional championship.”
Team: Eastern Hancock
Coach: Chad Coughenour
2016 Record: 15-11
2016 Results: The Class 2A Royals began their season losing five of six games before a six-game win streak carried the team through April. Eastern Hancock finished its regular season with two wins before adding two more in the first two rounds of sectional play. The team lost 15-5 to Heritage Christian in the sectional championship and finished third overall in the Mid-Hoosier Conference at 7-2.
Key Losses: Garek Ferguson, Tom Barton, Dwight Duzan.
Key Returnees: Devin Denny (12), Clayton White (12), Levi Majority (12), Jarett Lewis (11), A.J. Muegge (11), Andrew Knoblock (11), Addison True (11), Easton Fields (11).