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BASEBALL: Howard County 2024 season preview

Apr. 4—Eastern's baseball team has enjoyed a nice run of success this decade, going a combined 65-27 over the last three seasons with Class 2A Sectional 39 titles in 2022 and '23 — the first back-to-back sectional titles in program history.

The Comets are looking to continue their winning ways this season.

"I feel pretty good about where we are as a program," Eastern coach Erik Hisner said. "We lost some key pieces from last year's team, but we still have some pieces back. We'll be a little bit younger so depth wise we'll have some new players, but any time you return a Corbin Snyder, a No. 1 pitcher, we feel like we have a chance every time he takes the mound to win."

In Snyder, the Comets have one of the state's best pitchers. Last season, the 6-foot-6 right-hander earned Class 2A All-State honors after posting a 10-3 record with a 1.35 record. In 72.1 innings, he struck out 135 batters and allowed only 30 hits and 35 walks.

In Eastern's season opener against Elwood on Monday, Snyder earned the win after firing five no-hit innings and striking out 13. The Butler University commit improved to 26-7 in his career with 303 strikeouts in 181.2 innings.

"He's the best pitcher I've had the pleasure to coach in my career," Hisner said. "He's not only someone who's had a really good career and a lot of success, but he's someone who's been dominant. When someone strikes out as many hitters as he does, it takes a lot of pressure off your defense."

The Comets graduated No. 2 pitcher Cayden Calloway, but they return their Nos. 3-4 pitchers — sophomore Colt Snyder (5-1 record, 2.30 ERA) and junior Perry Kochensparger (1-0, 3.00) and they'll each move up one spot in the rotation. Hisner is considering junior Collin Otto and freshman Trey Beachy for the No. 4 spot. Senior Ethan Accord is a relief pitcher and junior Eli Brassard and sophomore J.T. Atherton also could see time on the mound.

Defensively, junior Jonathon Warren returns at catcher, junior Keaton Musgrave is at first, Acord is moving from outfield to second, the Snyder brothers will split time at shortstop, and Kochensparger is at third. Junior Lucas Fewell is the backup at first and Beachy is the backup at third.

The outfield has an all-new look. Sophomore Alister Shrock is in center and Otto is in right. Hisner is considering Atherton and Beachy for left field. Musgrave provides outfield depth.

"We feel we have a chance to be solid defensively," Hisner said. "With how we're built this year, I think pitching and defense will be our strengths. Offensively, we're going to be a work in progress, but the cupboard is not bare there either."

Acord (.390 average last season) is the leadoff hitter and Corbin Snyder (.383, team-high 31 RBI) is the No. 2 hitter with some combination of Kochensparger (18 RBI), Warren and Fewell in the Nos. 3-5 spots. Fewell is the primary DH.

Eastern beat Elwood 9-0 on Monday. The Comets' game against Daleville on Tuesday was canceled. Eastern and Northwestern are co-hosting the Howard County Invitational on Friday and Saturday. The eight-team field also includes Taylor, Rossville, Bluffton, Peru, Rochester and Adams Central. In the opening round, Eastern faces Peru at 5 p.m. Friday at Eastern.

The following are looks at the county's other teams.

KOKOMO

Mike Plank is Kokomo's new coach. The former Lawrence North assistant coach replaces Tim Weir, who went 50-60-1 in four seasons.

"It's definitely an opportunity that I'm excited for," Plank said. "I didn't know a lot about Kokomo before applying or stepping onto the field for the first time in the fall, and it's different than anywhere I've ever been, but I see a lot of promise."

Plank inherits a program in need of a spark. The 2023 Kats went 11-17 overall and 1-8 in the North Central Conference.

"We have pushed process and culture a lot," Plank said. "We're going to be somewhat younger. Last year, I think Coach Weir had 11 or 12 seniors. This year, we're looking at six seniors, six juniors, two sophomores and a freshman and then the first week I'm bringing two extra freshmen with us. On JV, we have only one sophomore and 12 freshmen."

With so many young players, Plank has realigned Kokomo's practices. Previously, the JV practiced at the high school and the varsity practiced at Municipal Stadium. Now, the JV team practices ahead of the varsity at Municipal Stadium.

"With us being so young, I want my eyes on every player every day," he said.

The Kats' pitching staff returns some good experience in junior left-hander Isaac Flamino (1-2 record, 3.00 ERA last season) and senior righty Dalton Dixon (4-2, 3.33). Flamino is expected to fill the No. 1 role.

Plank's pitching plans also include junior lefty Logan Dockemeyer, seniors Seth Carpenter and Eli Catron and freshman Ethan Merrell.

In junior J.J. Gillespie, Kokomo has a veteran catcher. Flamino or Dixon will man first base, sophomore Harry Blake is at second, Merrell is at shortstop and sophomore David Conner is at third.

Senior Chad Washburn returns to center field and is flanked by senior Jude Rivers in left and Dockemeyer in right.

"I think we're going to be great in the outfield. There's a lot of ground to cover at Municipal. I think we're good on both sides and Washburn in the middle is a stud," Plank said. "Infield, we're going to be a little younger. We're going to have three underclassmen in our infield. We'll have to see what it takes. The cool thing is we have some older guys that we have a lot of mobility where we can move around."

Senior Andrew Guerre and juniors Brighton Harris and Drew Williams provide infield depth.

Gillespie is the Kats' top returning hitter. He batted .382 last season.

Plank knows the Kats' offense will be a work in progress.

"When you have a young team, you always wonder how they're going to do when they jump into the box against some of these programs carrying three or four senior starters," he said. "I think our guys are going to be mentally prepared. We're going to have some good games and some bad games, but regardless it's going to be one pitch at a time, one at-bat a time, one game at a time."

Plank said he has imagined "7,000 different lineups" since starting in the fall, but he knows what happens on the field early in the season will dictate his plans moving forward.

"I do want some normalcy," he added. "I want the kids to know what they're going to be doing when they go to sleep the night before so they can mentally prepare."

Plank's coaching staff includes new assistants Joel Matheny and Alex Leiter, former Kat standout Nate Hemmerich and longtime assistant Nick Shanks.

NORTHWESTERN

Northwestern won a Class 3A sectional title in 2021 and posted winning records in 2022 (18-8) and 2023 (16-11-1).

To continue that success, the Tigers will need to have new pitchers step up. They have to replace last season's top two pitchers, Koen Berry (4-2 record) and A.J. Burkhalter (2-2).

"We showed at our scrimmage a little better than I was anticipating, especially on the mound. We showed a lot of depth that we have on the mound," Northwestern coach Ryan Ward said. "We've been fortunate enough to have some really good arms the last couple years with four guys pitching in college. I think there may be some who expect a little bit of drop-off on the mound from us, but just the collective effort of our guys really stood out to me during that scrimmage."

Senior Eastin Whaley is expected to front the new-look staff. He had a 1-1 record and 5.08 ERA in 31.2 innings last season. Juniors Karson Griggs (1-2, 4.39 ERA, 22.1 IP) and Hayden Cook (1-0, 2.85, 19.2 IP) also return with good experience. Ward also has seniors Cam Davis and Cole VanNatter in his pitching plans.

Defensively, Ward has a pair of anchors in VanNatter in center and fellow senior Lincoln Cardwell at catcher. Both have started since their freshman seasons. VanNatter is an Anderson University commit and Cardwell is heading to Parkland College.

"Just philosophically, I feel like you have to set yourself up in the middle and then work your way out," Ward said. "Behind the plate, we have Lincoln, then Eastin and Cam will play a lot of middle infield for us along with Corbyn Sparling, and then either Cole and Jonathan Keeney will hold down center field. So just about every inning this year we'll have seniors in the middle of the field. I think that provides a lot of confidence to the other guys."

Maddox Hunley, another senior, is at third base. Griggs or junior Chase DeWitt are at first. Cook and Sparling are corner outfield options.

Ward pointed to the presence and leadership of his seven seniors as a team strength.

"Between the experience and the physicality standpoint of having that many seniors can give us an advantage going into a lot of games," he said.

Juniors Teegan Helmle, Kolten Berry, Jax Hanson, Dylan Harrell and Parker Roswog also are in the mix for playing time.

Northwestern opens against Taylor in the opening round of the Howard County Invitational on Friday at Northwestern.

TAYLOR

Taylor's new coach is former Titan standout Matt Brankle. As a senior in 2011, Brankle helped the Titans go 27-5 with a Class 2A Final Four appearance. He went on to play at Earlham College.

"It's a pretty amazing opportunity to come back to where I grew up and to have a chance to make a difference with the kids and the program," Brankle said. "I know this is a big baseball community and a big baseball school so we definitely want to put Taylor baseball back on the map."

The Titans are in need of a spark. They went 8-15 last season, which marked their fourth straight losing season.

Brankle's first Taylor squad is anchored by pitching. The Titans return seniors Zach Landis, Hunter Williams and Jayden Johnson.

"They've all had varsity innings and they understand what it takes," Brankle said. "I think they're ready to make a difference in this program."

Brankle also has sophomore left-hander Jacob Trueblood and junior J.P. Smith in his pitching plans.

Janoah Trueblood is the catcher. Jacob Trueblood is at first. Marshall Chasteen is at second. Smith is the primary shortstop. Williams and Landis will split time at third.

The Titans' outfielders include E.Z. Ligon, Keith Walker, Zayden Lorenz, Jacob Trueblood and Landis.

Brankle is confident the Titans' defense will take shape over the course of the season.

"We started in the offseason teaching more individualized lessons," he said. "Everyone is being built in their own way, which I've always considered good coaching. You have to build a team as a team, but you also have to build individual players. They're not robots, they all have to be taught in their own way."

At the plate, Brankle will have seniors in four of the top five spots in the batting order.

"Those guys will keep us in games and adding J.P. Smith gives us a good bat in the 2-hole. From there, we have a bunch of guys who are working and getting better and they're almost there. As the season goes, we'll start seeing more bats on the ball and less strikeouts," he said.

Taylor is 1-1 after splitting a pair of games. The Titans lost to Cambridge City Lincoln and beat Purdue Polytechnic.

WESTERN

The Panthers are in rebuilding mode following heavy graduation losses from a team that went 24-5 and won the Hoosier Conference title.

"Obviously, there's a lot of newness and new opportunities in front of everyone," Western coach Ryan Berryman said. "The kids have been working hard and putting in their time and effort in the offseason. We're excited to get out there and see what we have. We don't have a lot of experience returning, but our guys know how to play the game."

The Panthers' big 2023 senior class included a pair of Indiana North All-Star pitchers in Mitchell Dean and Christian Pownall. They combined for 14 of the team's 24 victories. Dean, now at the University of Louisville, closed his Panther career with a 21-5 record. Pownall is now at Ohio State.

Berryman said senior James Paden, a Bethel recruit, will take on a bigger role this season after posting a 3-1 record last season. Junior left-hander A.J. Helmberger, freshman Jaxson Trueblood and sophomore Gavin White are other strong options. Sophomores Levi Shoemaker, Ashton Castillo, Grayson Miller and Mikes Rudy, junior Peyton Kauble, seniors Tate Heston and Peyton DeWeese and freshman Gavin Denton are all in the mix for innings as well.

"There's a lot of guys. Obviously, who's throwing strikes, keeping innings clean, and giving us a chance will get the most innings. It could be any of them," Berryman said.

"I think we'll probably piece a lot of games together, to be honest," he added. "I can see us throwing three or four guys every night and just developing consistent roles. We'll have a lot of guys throwing early."

Sophomore Ryan Rodman is the primary catcher after working as a part-time starter last season. Junior Liam Paden and Denton also could see time behind the plate. Shoemaker and Helmberger are possibilities for first base. James Paden is at second and junior Kyle Norman is at shortstop with Rudy, Kauble and sophomore Jason Dickison providing middle infield depth. Denton is at third base with Kauble and Shoemaker as backups.

The outfield options are DeWeese, senior Ethan Chapin (Manchester recruit), junior Brady Comer and sophomores Cal Berryman, Brayden Miller and Grayson Miller.

While the Panthers are lacking consistency in any phase of the game, Berryman sees potential in all phases.

"We're just looking to simplify the game as much as possible," he said. "I thought defense would be our strength, but we got in our scrimmage and made 10 errors. But we hit it really well and we threw really well. We were better in those areas than I expected. I just think day to day, we need to be as consistent as possible."

Berryman's assistants are three former Kokomo players — Isaac Turner, Chris Beatty and Zach Rodman. Former Taylor player Cole Braun is the JV coach with former Kat player Payton McClain assisting.

Western's scheduled opener against Rossville on Wednesday was rained out.

Bryan Gaskins is the Tribune's sports editor. He may be reached at bryan.gaskins@kokomotribune.com or 765-454-8567.