HANCOCK COUNTY — Spring is taking its time coming to central Indiana this year, but despite the cold weather Hancock County baseball teams are gearing up for another season on the diamond.

All four teams lost major contributors from their 2017 squads. Some of them went on to play Division I baseball: Drey Jameson of Greenfield-Central is at Ball State, and Keegan Watson of New Palestine is at Nebraska. However, each team also returns a core of players it expects to contribute toward maintaining Hancock County’s reputation as a source of great local talent.

Greenfield-Central is the only returning sectional champion in the county, but New Palestine and Eastern Hancock both have realistic expectations of competing for a sectional title this year as well.

Mt. Vernon lost the most production from last year’s team of any of the four county high schools, so this year’s focus will be on providing this year’s seniors with a great sendoff while seasoning the underclassmen for future success.

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Regardless of how each team ultimately finishes the season, all four schools play difficult schedules, which means there will be lots of great baseball for fans to see this season.

Eastern Hancock

The 2018 edition of the Eastern Hancock Royals baseball team is shaping up to be one of the most experienced and most talented in years. But it also has lost key contributors from the 2017 edition and has one of the toughest schedules in Class 2A.

Long story short, it should be a wild ride for the Royals this year.

The Royals graduated their 3, 4 and 5 hitters from last year’s 12-13 team. But the entire infield and No. 1 pitcher return for the Royals, who are looking to win the program’s first sectional title since 1976.

“Losing those guys definitely leaves a bit of a hole in our lineup,” Royals coach Chad Coughenour said. “But, with our catcher, infield and center fielder returning, we are going to be a great defensive team.”

Royal mainstays A.J. Muegge, third base, and Addison True, shortstop, return after hitting nearly .400 last season. Andrew Knoblock will be the team’s No. 1 pitcher with battery-mate Jarett Lewis returning as catcher.

“Not only are those guys returning, we’ve got 10 seniors this year, and eight of those guys may be starting,” Coughenour said.

A new challenge facing the Royals this year is the Mid-Eastern Indiana Conference. After being an independent last year, the team has a new goal to go for this season. Daleville, the defending conference champion; Wapahani, which made the 2A state finals last year; and Monroe Central figure to be the Royals’ toughest tests within the conference.

Overall, the Royals will play 14 games against schools that won a sectional title last season.

“Winning conference is going to be our No. 1 goal, and it’s a difficult one,” Coughenour said. “This group is one of the best I’ve seen since I’ve been here, and we will be ready to go after the conference and sectional titles.”

The Royals begin their season at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday against defending 2A state champion Cardinal Ritter.

Greenfield-Central

The Greenfield-Central Cougars ended the 2017 baseball season with a memorable loss in the regional round. Cougars coach Robbie Miller hopes that memory can fuel the program toward regularly getting the chance to win that regional.

“Drey (Jameson) and the other seniors were great for us last year,” Miller said.

“The good thing about those guys is that they taught the underclassmen how to compete every day and how to win.”

Despite losing Jameson to Ball State University, a very big loss for the Cougars, they return the vast majority of their 2017 sectional championship team.

Looking to replace Jameson as the No. 1 starter for the Cougars are sophomore Adam Hutchison and juniors Bradley McDowell and Blake Wilson. Miller has not decided who will pitch in what order, but he believes that’s a good problem to have.

“We obviously don’t have the dominant guy like we did last year,” Miller said. “But with the progression these three have made over the offseason, our pitching depth is better than it’s ever been.”

The Cougars’ offense will be led by catcher Braxton Turner, outfielder/pitcher Hutchison and third baseman Nick Atwood.

Miller said he believes the Cougars can repeat as sectional champions and add other trophies as well.

“We want to win the (Hoosier Heritage) Conference,” Miller said. “We’ve only won one HHC title since the conference was formed, even with our program’s history of state tournament success. We want to win the conference and another sectional to show everyone that G-C baseball will be a force to be reckoned with year in and year out.”

The Cougars begin the season at 6 p.m. March 30 at home against Richmond.

Mt. Vernon

For Mt. Vernon coach Ryan Carr, the 2018 season can be summed up in one word: Opportunity.

The Marauders lost eight seniors to graduation from the 2017 squad and lost two key contributors to a move and a transfer, leaving opportunities for playing time up and down the program.

“Losing those 10 players definitely hurts,” Carr said. “But that means there are spots available for players, and young guys are for sure going to get them.”

One area in which Carr said he believes the Marauders can compete is pitching; his ace is Caleb Rush.

“The last few years he’s had flashes where he’s been really, really, really good,” Carr said. “He went toe-to-toe with Carmel and Greenfield last year, but he really wasn’t mentally where he needed to be to do it over the long haul. This year he knows he needs to be that guy, and I think he’s ready.”

Offensively, Carr said he expects big years from first baseman/DH Jaden Cappelletti and right fielder Dino Tharp, who should bat third and fourth, respectively.

“Jaden started the year last year 1 for 17,” Carr said. “But by the time the end of the year rolled around, he was easily our best hitter and looks to be that way this year.

For the Marauders and all their lineup turnover, specific team goals are murky at this stage, but Carr said he believes this year can be a building block for future success.

“We need to play harder than we did last season, and with all these young guys getting a chance, I think that should definitely happen,” Carr said. “I also hope we are able to send this year’s seniors off with a successful season while allowing the underclassmen to take advantage of this opportunity to gain experience and come back ready to compete in the future.”

Mt. Vernon will begin the season at 6 p.m. April 2 at Brebeuf.

New Palestine

The state of the New Palestine baseball program is strong. Despite losing a Division 1-caliber talent to graduation and the team’s projected No. 1 starting pitcher to injury, Dragons coach Shawn Lyons is bullish on this year’s prospects.

“Our first goal every day is to get better,” Lyons said. “We’ve been doing that, thankfully, because we’ve got a deep program here from our large group of seniors to a large junior varsity team that guys are fighting every day to improve.”

The Dragons graduated Keegan Watson, now a relief pitcher at the University of Nebraska, but still believe the returning core of the team will be able to compete for a Hoosier Heritage Conference championship.

“Here at New Palestine, winning the conference is a big deal,” Lyons said. “I’ve been around a long time, and I can tell that this conference has some of the most talent in the state.”

Three players came to Lyons’ mind when asked about who would form the backbone of this year’s team: Nick Rusche, Jack Walker and Colby Jenkins.

“Rusche is as good of a shortstop we’ve had here at New Palestine,” Lyons said of his Taylor University-bound senior.

Walker, first base and outfield, and Jenkins, catcher and outfield, also look to provide offense for the Dragons.

The Dragons faced a setback on the mound before the season began: Projected No. 1 starter Kyle Gardner went down with an arm injury that will keep him out for his senior season. However, Lyons believes his roster will adequately fill that gap, as Jacob Garrison, Walker, Cameron Pitzer and Cameron Espich project to get the majority of the innings for the Dragons.

New Palestine is back in Class 4A after moving up and down between 3A and 4A the past few seasons, but Lyons doesn’t believe that should change his team’s goals.

“Six years ago we were the smallest team in 4A, and we made the semistate,” Lyons said. “Our depth may not be as impressive as the larger schools, but our top pitchers can compete with anyone.”

The Dragons begin the season at 5:30 p.m. April 3, when they play host to Batesville.