High school baseball: Talented Belleville Henderson baseball team looks to build off last year's run

Apr. 14—BELLEVILLE — By making a deep run in sectionals, the Belleville Henderson baseball team experienced a breakout season last year.

Now with much of their squad returning and bolstered with several newcomers, the Panthers hope to make another push this season, starting with taking on the Frontier League.

Last year was a memorable experience for the team as it recorded a 16-win season and reached a sectional final for the first time in baseball nearly a quarter of a century.

"It's a good group, it really is," Belleville Henderson coach Paul Gibbs said of this year's team. "We've got five more seniors that came up this year that we didn't have, and there's some kids that didn't play before, but they've come back to play again, so they're adding depth to us."

After breaking through with a 1-0 home quarterfinal win against Brookfield, Belleville Henderson reached the semifinal round in Class D where it generated even more suspense.

Trailing for much of the game against Stockbridge Valley, the Panthers rallied by scoring three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning and went on to prevail, 3-1, at Donovan Stadium at Murnane Field in Utica.

"It was amazing," senior pitcher and shortstop Brittan Cross said of the semifinal.

"We just seemed to find that opening just like we did at home against Brookfield," Gibbs said. "That was a heck of a pitcher's duel and when we pulled that one out in the seventh, it was a big relief. And in the next game we got down, but I told them not to get down on themselves, they took it to heart and we came back. It was great to see."

Belleville Henderson was then edged by Oriskany, 1-0, in the sectional final at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse on Memorial Day. While disappointing at the time, this loss has motivated returning players like senior Brittan Cross even more coming into this season.

"The final, for me I loved it, I loved every second of it," Cross said. "Of course when they got that blooper hit, I wasn't too happy about it, but I kept on shoving, got my 15 strikeouts and I got out of there pretty much. We didn't get out of there as a winner, but it was a respectable loss."

"We gave up a gift run in the fifth inning, we just couldn't get the bats going," Randall said.

Cross returns as the team's top starting pitcher and along with fellow co-captains Cayden Randall and Brandon Dodge, provide a strong core for this year's squad.

"It's a good mix, we like it, it's just now coming together," Gibbs said. "And when it all comes together it's going to be real good. The biggest thing is we've got the bulk of our pitching staff, we just lost (Caleb) Williams), so we're looking for a No. 2 and a No. 3 and I think we may have that."

Randall is back as the starting catcher and has a special bond with Cross and pitcher Brandon Dodge.

"He's been catching for me since (under) eight (ball)," Cross said of Randall. "So we have good chemistry I would say, he knows when I'm on, we have a good connection."

"I like framing, framing is my favorite part about it," Randall said. "Framing a ball and making a strike out of it that's one of my favorites about it. Like anything about catching, though, throwing people out is cool.

"It kind of like controls the game almost, you can see what's going on and put the pitch where you want it to be."

Cross is admittedly more of a power pitcher, while Dodge provides a good change of pace on the mound for the Panthers.

"I feel really confident about me and Brandon," Cross said. "I think when you get someone like me throwing really hard and everything like that, and then when he gets out there he just throws like these weird pitches that he's got and they just can't touch him after that. It helps out a lot."

"They're young, so it's going to take a little while to build them up, I think we have a pretty deep staff," Randall said of the pitching staff overall.

The Panthers again hope to deliver balance at the plate again this year.

"Our team is really young, they like to swing the bat, they're real fast," Cross said. "And we also have some older kids that came back to baseball and they've still got it, and they're still hitting. Our team is very aggressive with the bat."

Dodge, who also plays at first base, figures to lead off with Cross in the two-hole, with Randall batting third and outfielder Kadon Nolder hitting in the cleanup spot.

"I think our lineup is very talented," Randall said. "We're also very fast around the base paths, we're a lot faster."

Also back with the team is Brady Mooney, who starts at second base, along with Fred Plummer at third base, with both an option to pitch as well, with utility player and outfielder Kagen Simpson also back.

Belleville Henderson lost its top two hitters and run producers in Jeremy McGrath and Kyle Moyer to graduation last year.

But Cross hit .333 last year, including generating three doubles and a pair of triples, and drove in 17 runs, while Randall hit .375 last season with limited playing time.

"I like our hitting," Randall said. "Like the first week of practice, I wasn't sure how we were going to be, but we've found it already, which is good. We like faster pitching, but slower pitching we can hit, too."

While sports like soccer and basketball have garnered more prominence in recent years, Cross feels like this group has helped put Belleville Henderson baseball back on the map.

The appearance in the final was the first for the school in baseball since the 1999 team won the Class D-1 title.

"That was awesome," Randall said. "That was a great experience, I loved it. Everything about it I loved, playing on the field, I loved the night game and the final was awesome, too. That field was beautiful."

The team drew encouraging crowds of supporters last season, particularly in its run to the sectional title game.

"Amazing for the program," Cross said. "Like baseball, it's still kind of at the lower end of the thing at Belleville, but we're hoping that the younger kids coming up will take it and shine with it."

Gibbs said: "It was good, we had a lot of followers, I was surprised, it was a nice setting," Gibbs said. "We got to see Oriskany play ahead of us, so we knew what to expect there. The atmosphere there was good and we went to OCC we had a good crowd follow us again. I think maybe the biggest crowd was at our first sectional game here against Brookfield, I was standing behind third (base) and I looked up and I couldn't believe the mass amount of people that came here and it was exciting."

The Panthers got off to an encouraging start this season when they edged division rival Lyme, 5-4, on April 5.

The next day, Belleville Henderson then lost at perennial league power Beaver River, which moved up and is now playing in the newly configured "A-B" Division.

"For Frontier League, they're definitely the team to beat," Randall said of Lyme. "I think in the whole section I think the team to beat is Oriskany again, they're good."

But with the recent rainy weather, the Panthers haven't played since and will resume play when they face Alexandria today and Wednesday and then LaFargeville on Thursday before spring break begins next week.

Thus, Belleville Henderson's team depth, like most other teams, will be tested in the coming weeks.

"I'm very excited about this team and not because of how we won last year," Cross said. "I'll say it flat out, this team is way more athletic than last year's. Lots of young kids that played basketball and soccer and they're really good. We've got some older kids coming back that played baseball with us and they've still got it. We're just a really athletic and young team, very athletic."

"And it's exciting for the kids that are back and it's a fight to get back there, I told them, it's a hard battle to get back," Gibbs added. "If you work hard at it, you stand a good chance to get back there, but there's no guarantees, it's all in your hands."