If sports bookies wandered into southern Hancock County and were asked to handicap New Palestine’s chances at winning 20 games for the 11th season straight season, claiming a share of the Hoosier Heritage Conference title for the 10th consecutive spring and reaching a sectional championship game for the 11th year a row — and were armed with the knowledge that NP would be without 129 RBI and all but three wins from its 2012 pitching staff — the estimations would be as dim as the chances Peyton Manning starts at quarterback for the Colts next fall.
But, area hard ball enthusiasts know it would be unwise to bet against the brand that is Dragon baseball, a program whose tradition of success was established by Al Cooper and has been carried on by second-year coach Shawn Lyons.
“I think New Palestine baseball has a culture. Coach Cooper set the foundation, and I’ve tried to carry it on,” explained Lyons, who went 25-7 and acquired a semistate berth in his initial season. “Now, you never know what you’re going to have year to year. You hope it’s kind of a pay-it-forward thinking with our past players, you hope that’s what’s going to happen.”
Hancock County Player of the Year Brian Page, along with fellow all-county and all-Hoosier Heritage Conference honorees Reid Clark and Jacob Barnes, were the main cogs to depart. Fellow seniors Ryan Evans, Stephen Ochs, Andrew Rejer and Alec Shull were key contributors.
The Dragons, tied for eighth with New Albany in the preseason Class 4A Indiana Baseball Coaches Association poll, actually sport five seniors who garnered some varsity time last year: Tylar Ledford, Corey Lyons (Shawn’s son), Andrew Rejer, Ryan Snyder and Nick Ulrey. Add in Alex Thomas, a senior who is coming off a two-year baseball hiatus, and at the very least Lyons has strength in numbers with his fourth-years.
Alas, only Ulrey recorded more than eight at-bats of that group in 2012 (he led the team with 100).
“We talk a lot about how in other programs they might have had more varsity experience last year,” coach Lyons said of his seniors. “You have to bide your time like the kids in the past. It makes it easier to convince them. Hopefully they’ll buy into that and progress as the season goes on.”
NP does have two proven talents in the junior class with Cameron Clark and Connor Swain.
In his first major varsity action last spring, Clark registered top-four team finishes in average (.371), hits (36), triples (3) and RBI (24) on the road to honorable mention all-county and all-conference honors. Swain was tied for first in hits (39), was second in average (.402) and was named all-county and all-HHC.
Lyons has congregated with Ulrey, Swain and Clark and informed them that’ll they will be the object of opponent’s attention the same way Barnes, Page and Reid Clark were in 2012.
“We told them, ‘The target is on your back this year. They know who you are,’” Lyons offered. “I have no doubt that they’ll be able to step up to the challenge.”
The only set positions are at shortstop and second base, where 11th-grader Nick Butcher and Rejer compose the Dragons’ middle infield battery. Butcher logged major innings at shortstop last season, but only recorded five at-bats. Rejer appeared in 19 games and had eight at-bats.
The trio of Clark, Swain and Ulrey will each play third base and pitch. Swain will also play outfield, and Ulrey is due for time at catcher.
Ledford, Lyons and junior Evan Vance are three more throwers to keep an eye on early in the season.
Expect a lot of early-season experimenting by the elder Lyons. All the new faces combined with a lack of outdoor preparation will mean a lot of mixing and matching.
Delta, Greenfield-Central, Mt. Vernon, Yorktown and Shelbyville were among the schools mentioned by Lyons when discussing the HHC race, and he said Franklin and Greenwood were among the prime contenders in Sectional 13.
So as the temperature gradually increases and the season rolls along, Lyons anticipates the players will begin to fill roles voided by the 2012 seniors as their confidence is cultivated by experience.
“We’re hoping that we get better throughout the year, he said. “Once our young kids believe in themselves, we’ll take off.”