By Denis House
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
At the beginning of last season, South Laurel wasn’t really in discussion as to who was going to win the 13th Region.
Names like North Laurel, Middlesboro and Clay County were among those tabbed as preseason favorites. But it doesn’t matter where you start, it’s where you end, and the Cardinals ended up with the 13th Region title and a trip to the state tournament, where they fell in the opening game to Ashland.
Coach Wynn Harris said the talk of his team “sneaking up” on people last year is being used in preparation for this season, which is scheduled to start tonight at Harlan County.
“That has been the motivation all year,” Harris said. “Every conversation that we have had with our team this year is about staying hungry and focused and not letting what people say, positive or negative, about our team affect us. I know they hear that we “snuck up” on people. But we were also in the final game to be able to do that. I want us to play our game. Go out and play hard on every pitch and understand that not one person carried us last year, but a bunch of guys that put differences aside and came together with on goal. And that goal was not necessarily to win the region but to be playing our best baseball at the end of the year.”
The Cardinals finished 26-12 last season and lost only four seniors to graduation: Chase McWhorter, Charlie Davis, Stephen Simpson and Drew Irvin. But those four combined for 121 hits and 80 RBI, so they were a big chunk of the South Laurel offense that will need to be replaced.
“We are looking at several guys to fill those spots,” Harris said. “Many of them helped out last year in more of a role spot. We are looking for all of those guys to step up. We basically have five guys that are going to fill three spots and all are going to have to contribute on the mound. That makes us very flexible with our lineup and defensive alignments. We are pretty blessed to have an abundance of guys that can play more than one position. We are going to try to utilize that to put the best on the field.”
The Cardinals have several key players returning, including Trent Abner, Alex Sears, Daniel Neal, Joe Gaines, Matt Slavey and Zach Allen, to name just a few. Allen is recovering from a concussion sustained during football season that caused him to miss the entire basketball season.
Abner led the team with 57 hits last season, including 19 doubles from the lead off position while batting .432. Neal led the team with nine home runs while driving in 44. Sears was second on the team in RBI with 35. Last season the Cards had a good mix of power and contact hitting. Harris feels that will not change this year.
“I think we will have a mix of both,” Harris said. “Obviously we hit several home runs last year (28) but one of the things that really helped us was the guys that were on base in front of those home runs. I think we are going to have an entire lineup that will bring something positive to the table from the offensive side. I just want us to get better about the overall team concept and that they can and will pick each other up.”
One spot that Harris feels very confident in is his infield.
“That is absolutely one of our strengths,” Harris said. “We have five guys back this year that filled those four spots. I felt like we got pretty good in the infield toward the end of the season last year, I expect us to carry that on into this year, Again, everyone of those guys can play another position and that helps as well.”
Pitching will also be a strength for this year’s team. Neal was 9-1 last season with a 3.43 ERA. Trey Martin went 4-1 with a 2.64 ERA. Sears, Allen, Austin Vigeant, Braden Miller, Brennan Miller and Matt Slavey all return this season.
“We have several guys that we can throw this year that have given us innings in the past,” Harris said. “We expect the same thing out of all of them this year. It’s something that we have been talking about from day one and that is throwing strikes. I’m not worried about how hard they throw or even the stuff that they have. I want a lot of strikes. We can’t defend walks and hit by pitches. I also feel pretty good about our defense and want us to utilize that as much as we can.”
Last year the Cardinals stole 71 bases. Harris said athletically their overall team speed could be really good this year, but it’s more important how smart they are on the base paths. “We have to be aggressive because we can run a little but we also have to make good decisions.”
The season opens much sooner this year, with South scheduled to be on the road at Harlan County tonight then host Southwestern Saturday. Several of the Cardinals also played on the basketball team, so many will not be in baseball shape by the opener.
“I always say in the beginning of the season that if we are as good as we are going to be that we are not very good,” Harris said. “Our goals are to get better every game and play the best baseball we can at the end of the year. I don’t know that I like the fact of playing so early with the weather, but I have only myself to blame. I make the schedule. I thought we might sneak some good weather in again like last year.”
Harris said his team can’t overlook or put anyone on a pedestal as far as the district and region goes.
“That’s why we play the game,” Harris said. “Every team in the district and region for that matter have guys that can beat you on the mound and at the plate, and if you don’t play well they can get you. I do think that both are wide open. I know we won the district and region last year, but that doesn’t mean that we have won them this year. If we continue to talk and think about last year, we will struggle this year.”
Harris said his goal, and his team’s goal, is to get better every game and play the best baseball they can at the end of the year. He feels like if they do that, they will have a successful year.
“Along with that I want us to learn to play together and create a culture where we allow each other to get better and don’t get caught up in the hype or negative comments or outside interference that can happen. I really like this team. We have a good culture right now. I think that is one of the big issues that we will face this year, our own culture in the locker room, dugout, and on the field. Right now we haven’t lost any, so it will be interesting once the season starts to see how our guys will handle it. I feel pretty good about the fact that we have a lot of our lineup back. But it’s easy to get comfortable, and I don’t want that to happen. I want us to stay hungry and keep the motivation to get better as the year goes on. If we have already arrived, we are not very good. And so far we have worked really hard, we just need to continue to do so.”