Head coach: Brian Murphy, second season
2013: 23-8-1 overall, 11-3 Hoosier Heritage Conference. Beat Connersville 6-3 to win 4A Sectional 9 championship, lost 3-0 to eventual state runner-up Cathedral in regional semifinal.
Last sectional title: 2013
Key losses: IF/P Curtiss Irving (.485/30 RBI/3-1/2.13 ERA), P/OF Brendon Neal (7-1/3.08 ERA/.244) and C Jayden Jackson (.328) were among a large group of 2013 graduates who led the Cougars to their first sectional title since 2006, as well as a first-ever Hoosier Heritage Conference championship. Irving was the Hancock County Co-Player of the year (with Mt. Vernon’s Troy Montgomery), while Neal and Jackson made the All-County squad. Other starters lost to graduation include OF Kyle Gleeson (.293), OF Chris Kersey (.250), 3B Cam Gruell (.240) and 2B Adam Rains (.165).
Outlook: The Cougars boast six returnees who saw action in at least half of the team’s 2013 contests: P/IF/OF Jared Banton (.348), P/2B/SS Slater Rush (.313), OF Austin Jackson (.313), SS/P Mitch Gibson (.258/3-1/2.19 ERA), P/OF Hayden Kissee (4-0/0.88 ERA) and P/1B/3B Seth Adams (3-1/1.71 ERA). The latter trio will be key in making up for the mound loss of Irving (49.1 IP/69K) and Neal (52.1 IP/57K), who finished 1-2 in the county in strikeouts and innings pitched. Gibson, Kissee and Adams each tossed between 22-32 innings in 2013. ... On offense, Irving’s loss from the No. 3 hole, where he slugged a whopping .798 with an OPS of 1.372, will be challenging. The Cougars will rely on a more balanced attack as they attempt to defend their sectional crown this season. There were flashes of potential last season by the now team leaders. In 30 at-bats over 17 games, Adams blasted two home runs, behind only Irving and Neal (three each) for the team lead. Banton finished third in on base percentage (.483). And Gibson and Rush combined for 26 RBI. Gibson joined Irving, Neal and Jackson on the All-HHC team due in part to his defensive prowess. Kissee was All-HHC Honorable Mention. ... Getting a bump in varsity playing time will be junior C Syrus Fletcher, senior OF Ben Stephens, junior OF Dallas Pribble and sophomore 1B/OF Tate Hall.
Murphy says: “We graduated a lot of really good players, obviously, but we have a lot coming back, especially on the mound. Hayden and Seth and Mitch, they may not have been a lot conference games, but when they pitched last year they were pretty effective. So I think we’ve got a good nucleus on the mound.”
“We’re going to have to pitch well and play good defense. That’s a cliché, but it’s true for us. We just don’t have the firepower at the plate that we had last year. I do think we’ve got better speed, so we’ll be able to steal more bases and hit-and-run. Last year, we were kind of able to just sit back and wait for a big hit.”
“We’ve got a chance to win right away, but I think we’re going to get better as the year goes on. Despite the guys we lost, I think we could still be in the (conference and sectional) hunt.”
Opening Day: The Cougars visit Pendleton Heights Friday for a HHC doubleheader. (If games are postponed by weather, Saturday is make-up day.)