NEW PALESTINE — Five wins into its postseason climb, the New Palestine baseball team has one more hill to scale to earn a spot in the State Finals.
Make that one more mountain.
The Dragons will take on Gibson Southern and its 275-pound ace Saturday in the Class 3A semistate at Plainfield at 1 p.m.
Dillon Whitten, a six-foot-4 senior right-hander who tipped the scales at 300 pounds before dropping some weight prior to his final prep campaign, is scheduled to take the mound for the Titans (26-7).
“(Whitten) reminds me a little of the Lebanon pitcher with their velocity,” New Palestine coach Shawn Lyons said. “The difference is this kid, he’s a big kid. He’s a senior, so he’s a little more tested.
“They rode him through the regional and the sectional. So it’s going to be a pretty good challenge for us.”
Lebanon sophomore Reid Schaller, a Vanderbilt commit and one of the state’s highest-ranked prospects, took on the Dragons (23-9) in the regional opener Saturday at Crawfordsville. But the lanky Schaller and his low-90s fastball didn’t make it out of the fifth inning against the New Palestine lineup.
The Dragons, who swept through three opponents with relative ease to win a sectional title, beat Lebanon 6-4 Saturday afternoon in the regional semifinal, then blanked Edgewood 4-0 in the championship.
Saturday is a one-game semistate, with the winner advancing to the State Finals, either next Friday or Saturday at Victory Field in Indianapolis.
Andrean (29-4) and Ft. Wayne Bishop Dwenger (19-11) will battle in the other 3A semistate this weekend, Saturday at Plymouth.
New Palestine is making its third semistate appearance of the last five seasons, while Gibson Southern, located in Fort Branch, 25 miles north of Evansville, hadn’t won a regional since 1994.
Saturday, Whitten out-dueled Batesville’s Bryan Hoeing (Louisville) in a 1-0 win, then the Titans pasted Silver Creek 16-4 in the regional championship.
Whitten (8-2, 1.03 ERA) smashed two home runs against Silver Creek. The big fella is hitting .431 with a team-high 24 RBI. Senior catcher Caleb Wagner is hitting .433.
“It’s been pretty exciting around here,” Gibson Southern coach Chris May said. “But I think we’re handling it well.
“For the fans, we’ve had some football success, too. So they’re kind of used to heading to Indy for semistates now.”
The Titans won football regionals in 2012 and 2013.
The current cheering at Gibson Southern extends beyond the baseball diamond. The school’s softball team will play for a state title Saturday. The lady Titans will take on Leo at 4:30 p.m. at Ben Davis, so a host of Gibson Southern fans figure to head straight from Plainfield to the near-west side of Indy. (In 2011, Gibson Southern beat the New Palestine softball squad 9-3 at semistate.)
While the Gibson Southern baseball accomplishments are a new experience, May noted that several of his starters, including Whitten, were part of a 2013 American Legion state title squad.
The Titans don’t feature a single freshman or sophomore on the varsity roster.
New Palestine counters with a lineup that is also veteran-heavy, although freshman Keegan Watson (.481) and sophomores Hogan Fulkerson (4-0, 3.41 ERA) and Jason Hall-Manley (.278) have been significant contributors this season.
“If you’re good enough, we’re going to put you in the lineup, whether you’re a freshman, someone’s son, it doesn’t matter,” Lyons said. “If you’re good enough, you’re going to play.”
Lyons credited his assistant coaches – Mike Zeilinga, Troy Rush, Andy Swain, Landon McBride, Andrew Armour, Chris Story and Matt Hayden – with the in-season growth of the players, young and old.
Following an 11-7 start, the Dragons are 12-2 since early May.
“I’ve got a tremendous coaching staff,” Lyons said. “It’s all about development.
“I think as a staff, we work pretty hard. Overall, we put as much pressure on practice to where the game is almost the same. And you can see, some of these kids got better and better as the year went along.”
Among several Dragons displaying their best baseball when it has counted the most are hurlers Evan Vance (6-3, 2.47), Cameron Clark (4-1, 2.51 ERA) and Connor Swain (4-3, 3.57).
One of the three senior pitchers will start Saturday, Lyons said.
Vance has allowed only one earned run in 14.1 postseason innings. The senior got the win over Edgewood in the regional title game, while Clark beat Lebanon with six strong innings.
“The development of our staff throughout the year has been crucial,” Lyons said. “They started off slow.”
For New Palestine Baseball, as has been the case for years going back to former head coach Al Cooper, it’s all about practice.
“The bullpen sessions are so important for us, because when you’re pitching in a game, you can’t think, you just have to pitch,” Lyons said.
“But, when we get them on a Tuesday in the bullpen, that’s when you can think and work on mechanics and different pitches. And I think that’s helped a lot.”
Swain (.423) and Clark (.343) are also among the club’s top hitters, along with Watson, Logan Gilvin (.400) and Steven Clark (.380).
The key Saturday for the Dragons, Lyons noted, will be to put pressure on the Gibson Southern defense by simply making contact against Whitten, an Olney College commit who went through a pair of back injuries early in his prep career that contributed to weight gain.
The fastball of the now-healthy Whitten was clocked at 91 miles per hour against Batesville.
“I think the big thing is we can’t strike out,” Lyons said. “If we strike out, we’re not going to win.”
IHSAA baseball semistate schedule.
Times: 1 p.m. with second game to follow.
NP broadcast: HancockCountySports.com
Kokomo (Highland Park)
Class A — Washington Township (23-8) vs. Rockville (27-3), 1 p.m.
Class 2A — Lafayette Central Catholic (27-6) vs. Wapahani (28-4)
Class 3A — Andrean (29-4) vs. FW Bishop Dwenger (19-11), 1 p.m.
Class 4A — Lake Central (23-10) vs. Noblesville (27-8)
Class 3A — New Palestine (23-9) vs. Gibson Southern (23-7), 1 p.m.
Class A — Shakamak (25-6) vs. Vincennes Rivet (21-7)
Jasper (Ruxer Field)
Class 2A — Indianapolis Ritter (22-7) vs. Evansville Mater Dei (22-9), 1 p.m.
Class 4A — Terre Haute N. (24-7) vs. Castle (24-8)