LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
North Laurel lost just one player from last year’s 13th Region championship team. Even though it was a very big loss, there is plenty of reason for optimism.
“It is a whole new year because we will be playing without Marcus Carson, the 13th Region Player of the Year and statistically the best player to ever play at North Laurel,” said Coach Darrin McWhorter. “On the other hand, we have everyone else back and they have a taste of what it is to win the region tournament. They are hungry to try and do it again.”
Carson is now playing for the University of Kentucky after rewriting the North Laurel record book. Carson hit leadoff the past five years for the Jaguars. He holds North Laurel records for career batting average (.474), single-season batting average (.534), runs scored in a career (231), single-season runs scored (57), and career hits (256).
“From a strategy standpoint it will change a little because when Marcus got on base, which was often, you knew he could steal second or third base against anyone. Now we might have to bunt them over instead,” McWhorter said.
The bright side is that most teams would be thrilled with replacing just one player from a region championship team. The Jaguars still boast a strong pitching staff and other players are ready for a breakout year.
“Our strength will be our pitching and catcher. We return all of our pitching with the exception of Marcus Carson and he didn’t throw one inning in the region tournament last year,” McWhorter said. “We also have in my biased opinion the best catcher in the region Ethan Maxey.
The North Laurel pitching staff is talented, experienced, and deep. Zach Hurley returns after a strong sophomore season. Hurley posted a 6-2 record with a team-best 1.75 ERA. In 53 innings pitched, Hurley struck out 53 batters and allowed just 15 hits.
Logan Mallory posted an impressive 7-1 record with a 2.38 ERA. Mallory also led the team with 63 strikeouts.
Byron Rice pitched his way to a perfect 5-0 record 1.84 ERA. Weston Griebel had a perfect record as well at 3-0 with a 2.27 ERA despite missing part of the year with an injury.
That’s not even all the arms the Jaguars have to call on. Add to the mix Austin Thompson, Ray Hays, Dylan Messer, and Chris Benge.
North Laurel pitchers struck out and impressive 246 batters in 233 innings. They will need to improve on the 130 base on balls issued.
Pitching shouldn’t be an issue for the Jaguars, but without Carson it could be harder to score runs.
“You are always concerned with hitting and scoring runs. Even though we only lost one player he was the driving force offensively behind this team,” McWhorter said.
Maxey is expected to be at the top of the batting order, followed by Griebel and Hurley. Maxey is the top returning hitter with a .412 average and a .526 on-base percentage. Griebel hit .333 last season and tied for Carson for team high with 11 doubles. Hurley hit .350 with his 20 stolen bases second to only Carson’s 26.
Look for Thompson in the cleanup spot with Mallory in the five spot.
One area the Jaguars could improve at the plate is strikeouts. They totaled 186 strikeouts last season, but it could be hard to improve since Carson accounted for just three.
How the Jaguars take the field will depend on who is pitching with the exception of Maxey behind the plate.
Dylan Messer and Logan Mallory will split time at first base. Byron Rice and Austin Rudder will again share time at second. Cole Lewis will return at shortstop with Jack Capobianco able to give him a break. Third base will belong to Jake McWhorter and Braxton Hicks.
Griebel gets the start in left field with Keaton Kennedy seeing action as well.
Hurley will fill the big shoes of Carson in centerfield with Ryan Abner backing him up. In right field, Thompson will be backed by Hunter North.
Despite the talent returning, McWhorter isn’t ready anoint his team as 2014 champions. Along with the target that is on their back as returning champion, several other teams appear loaded as well.
“I wouldn’t say favorite because you have South Laurel with a region title from two years ago and a majority of those players are juniors now who started on that team as freshmen. I do think this region is wide open and a number of teams return their entire roster from last season or a majority of their team,” McWhorter said.
He points to teams such as Clay County, Corbin, Knox Central, Middlesboro and Harlan County as being contender.
“I do think our chances to win are as good as anyone else in the region,” McWhorter said.