By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
After reeling off 28 wins, North Laurel’s season ended in the semifinals of the 13th Region tournament in 2012. The Jaguars will have a few holes to fill from graduation, including University of Kentucky signee Zach Storm.
There will be a more to replace than Storm’s 13 homeruns and 27 stolen bases. Ethan Eversole was the team’s No. 3 hitter (.358) and second in RBI (33). Bubby Brooks also signed to play college baseball for Pikeville. When you include players like Ryan Shears, John Evans, and Taylor Bowling, you are losing the entire infield and the pitchers that accounted for 15 of their 28 wins.
“We lost some good kids, but we’ve still got a good corps group coming back,” McWhorter said.
Gabe Blair’s shoulder injury suffered during football season led him to taking the baseball season off. When you include his numbers with the seniors there are 20 home runs the Jaguars will have to replace.
One area North Laurel can look at as a potential strength is a return of experienced pitching, including Marcus Carson. Carson’s six wins and 2.37 ERA both led the team.
“We’ve got 13 of the 28 wins back, so that’s a pretty good start with guys that have varsity experience,” McWhorter said. “That being said, we will be throwing some babies out there with zero experience.”
With pitchers limited to just a couple of innings per game in the early season, including several players just joining the team from basketball, there will be a lot of arms in action early. The Jaguars have five games scheduled to the first week if the weather cooperates.
“If we get them all in, we’re going to have to throw some young guns out there,” McWhorter said.
So who will be in the North Laurel rotation? Just look at the roster, it will be the rotation.
Zach Hurley and Austin Thompson have varsity experience on the mound. Logan Mallory was a winner in both of his decisions last year, getting both the first win and the last win of the season.
“Then you have guys that threw a lot of JV last year that are going to be sophomores,” McWhorter said.
This group includes Elijah Jervis and Byron Rice. And even younger players like freshman Ray Hays and eighth grader Weston Griebel.
“There could be more. If someone’s arm is hurting you move on to the next one. I told them everybody in here is a pitcher,” McWhorter said. “Be ready when your number is called to come in and throw strikes.”
The offense will also have a different look without Storm in the middle of the lineup to clear the bases. Carson is the only returning player that hit a home run last year. And it’s certainly not Carson’s role with as a leadoff hitter with 28 stolen bases.
“It’s a different kind of team. They run really well. They work really hard on their swings trying to drive gaps and hit the ball where it is pitched,” McWhorter said. “Hitting opposite field to the gaps is what separate the men from the boys. That’s the most successful hitters.”
While McWhorter is confident he will have players with gap to gap power, he is not as confident about the defense.
“Who knows? We can’t get outside on the field and we just got our basketball guys back,” McWhorter said, with the cold and rain keeping the Jaguars inside almost the entire preseason.
“We’ve taken as many swings as we can take. Our pitchers have thrown as much as they can throw,” McWhorter said.
McWhorter isn’t concerned about his outfield with Carson, Hurley, and Thompson all returning from last season. With all of three also pitching, Hunter North and Griebel will also see playing time in the outfield.
“I do not worry a bit about our outfield. Our outfield is our strong suite. Our infield is where we lost everything. It’s all new guys,” McWhorter said. “Until they get out there and get a taste of it, you just don’t know.”
Cole Lewis has been getting most of the reps at shortstop. Austin Rudder can also play shortstop if needed.
“(Lewis) is quick and getting strong. He runs well and hits the ball well. We’ve got a lot of confidence in him,” McWhorter said.
Rudder will see action at second base along with Byron Rice. Rudder will also be in the mix at third base, along with Jake McWhorter. Logan Mallory and Caleb Deaton will patrol first base when he isn’t pitching. Ethan Maxey at catcher is expected to be one of the team’s strengths.
“It’s going to be trial and error. Whoever makes the plays and whoever hits the ball the best when it’s their turn to come out there,” McWhorter said.
McWhorter ranks defending 13th Region champion South Laurel as the team to beat again this year.
“They’ve got just about everybody back. They lost a few, but they’ve got some good ones to take their spots,” McWhorter said. “Their lineup is dangerous all the way through.”
McWhorter also expects experienced Harlan County and young Knox Central to contend. He throws the Jaguars and Clay County into the mix as well.