NEW PALESTINE — So far this spring, the state of Indiana has seen two sophomore pitchers commit to NCAA Division I baseball programs.
New Palestine faced one of the standouts April 23 when Roncalli’s Michael McAvene (Purdue) dominated the Dragons’ lineup in a 15-1 six-inning win. The six-foot-3 right-hander and the Rebels held New Palestine to three hits with 10 strikeouts in a regular season, non-conference affair.
Saturday, New Palestine (21-9) could face the state’s other 2016 Division I commit with much higher stakes. The Dragons will take on No. 2 Lebanon (25-3) in the Crawfordsville Regional semifinals at 2 p.m.
Reid Schaller, the Tigers’ ace with a 90-plus miles per hour fastball, verbally committed to Vanderbilt in March.
“When Roncalli threw McAvene at us, he pretty much dominated us with his fastball, which was disappointing,” New Palestine coach Shawn Lyons said by way of comparison. “But I will tell you that was six weeks ago, and I would like to think that we are a much better team than we were then. And our record indicates that.
“The strength of schedule we played going down the stretch with Brebeuf or Franklin Central and others, it has proved that we’re playing our best baseball right now toward the end of the season.”
The Dragons have won eight of their last nine games, including a 3-0 sectional performance that included wins of 10-1, 11-1 and 7-5. Led by freshman Keegan Watson (.500 average) and seniors Nick Butcher (.462), Connor Swain (.418), Steven Clark (.389) and Cam Clark (.362), the squad’s offense is clicking.
New Palestine’s hot hitters will be tested Saturday, no matter who is on the Lebanon mound.
Fifteenth-year Lebanon head coach Rick Cosgray said Thursday that he wouldn’t decide until after practice today who he would toss against the Dragons and who he would save for a potential championship game against the other semifinal winner.
Beech Grove (9-11) and Edgewood (22-6) will battle at 6 p.m. Saturday evening, with the championship to follow.
Schaller, a 6-3 right-hander and Preseason All-American Second Team selection by Perfect Game USA, is 9-1 on the year with a 1.77 ERA in 55.1 innings. Lebanon senior Jackson Bennett is 8-1 with a 1.78 ERA in 51 innings.
No other Tigers hurler has thrown more than 20 innings this season, and either Schaller or Bennett, a Vincennes commit, will take the hill against the Dragons.
“We’ll have to determine what we think is our best bet,” Cosgray said. “Bennett is a senior and has one loss on the year and has done an outstanding job for us. So we have confidence in both kids.”
Cosgray added that, depending on how the semifinal plays out, Schaller and Bennett could both see action in the opener.
“We would not hesitate to make that move at all,” said the coach, who helped the club win its first sectional since 2000 earlier this week. “We have to take care of Game 1, so whatever gives us the best opportunity to get to the championship.”
Given New Palestine’s recent offensive uptick – the mythical beasts have posted at least eight runs in 11 of 19 games since the loss to Roncalli – Cosgray’s counterpart is banking on a start by Schaller Saturday afternoon.
“I would assume that,” Lyons said. “I’m sure after (Cosgray) talks to a lot of coaches that know we’re a pretty good hitting ball team, he’s going to throw Schaller.”
Lebanon will bring more than just effective pitching to the regional. Led by six senior starters, the Tigers are hitting .392 as a club, with a .471 on-base percentage and a .554 slugging percentage.
Third baseman/designated hitter Caleb Myers, the unit’s other sophomore star, is hitting .506 with 11 doubles, six home runs and 38 RBI, all team bests. Myers had a home run in the Tigers’ 12-4 sectional title win over Frankfort Tuesday.
“I think in order to have the type of success that we’ve been able to have this year, I think we’ve had a combination of things,” Cosgray said. “We’ve had games where we’ve had multiple hits and had success that way, but yet we can do situational hitting and small ball if need be.”
The Tigers’ hitters will likely face either Swain (4-3, 3.57 ERA) or Evan Vance (5-3, 2.82 ERA) Saturday. Andy Edwards (3-1, 2.97 ERA) is also in the mix.
“Honest to God, we haven’t decided,” Lyons said. “I want to talk to some more coaches who have played Lebanon and see if they struggle with a certain pitch, and then that’s going to help me put the final piece of the puzzle together on who I’ll throw.”
Along with Cam Clark (3-1, 2.27 ERA) and Hogan Fulkerson (4-0, 3.41 ERA), the New Palestine staff boasts five pitchers with at least 24 innings on the mound this season, unlike Lebanon’s Schaller-Bennett dominated attack.
The Dragons and Tigers didn’t play this season and have only one common foe. New Palestine beat Brebeuf in the sectional championship Tuesday, 7-5. Lebanon lost to Brebeuf, 7-6, April 25, but neither Schaller nor Bennett took the mound.
“Essentially, we don’t have a great deal of information on New Palestine,” Cosgray said. “We’ve talked to our players a lot this year about just focusing on ourselves and doing the things we practice and try to execute game-to-game.
“We’ll do our best to learn more about New Palestine, but we do know this: Traditionally, they are a very solid program and, obviously, to get to this point they have a solid team. We know we’ll have our hands full with a good team that comes from a traditionally good program.”
Lebanon has never claimed a baseball regional title. New Palestine has won five regional championships, including a 4A crown two years ago.
“A lot of our kids love playing in situations like this,” said Lyons, in his third year as head coach after serving as a longtime pitching coach under Al Cooper. “I firmly believe that we take second place to nobody.
“We’ll compete. We’re going to play on Saturday in a regional game, and hopefully our kids aren’t intimidated by the environment and we’ll thrive in it.”
>>The key numbers behind Saturday’s clash between New Palestine and Lebanon:
Runs per game
Dragons: 4.6 pg
Tigers: 2.8 pg
S. Clark .389/.459/.484
C. Clark .362/.488/.521
C. Clark 3-1/2.27/1.239
3A Baseball Regional at Crawfordsville
New Palestine (21-9) vs. Lebanon (25-3), 2 p.m.
Beech Grove (9-12) vs. Edgewood (22-6), 6 p.m.
Championship: 8:45 p.m. (approximately)