FARINA — South Central coach Curt Jones admittedly lost a lot of talent from last season's team, a squad that advanced to the St. Elmo Sectional final before falling to eventual Class 1A state champion St. Anthony.
In spite of this loss, the Cougas exceeded all of Jones' expectations this fall, winning 16 games and capturing the NTC regular season championship with a roster that was short on experience.
"We didn't know what we were going to get," Jones said. "They surprised me, so that's a good thing."
Now in his 16th season at the helm, Jones attributes the success to the attitude of this year's team. While there may not be any special athletic specimens, Jones says his team's record this spring will reflect their love of the game.
"They're a bunch of kids that like baseball, which is good," he said. "It makes it easier to coach when you have kids like that. Whatever ability they do have, they're getting the most out of that ability."
The Cougars will need to squeeze every drop of their collective talents on the mound, as Jones believes the majority of his team are better position players. One arm he will rely on heavily is senior lefty Daniel Diss.
"Dan is probably the one who's emerged as our best overall pitcher," Jones said. "He had the most success with this group this fall. He throws a little faster, probably more experienced."
Sophomore Noah Powless could be the X-factor for Jones' rotation. The strong underclassman has been hard at work on another pitch that escapes his coaches description, and will likely escape opposing bats as well.
"He developed a new pitch that is pretty nasty," Jones said. "It's sort of like a split-finger fastball, I don't even know what to call it. High school kids will not hit it, but he's a little all over the place. If he can figure that out he's going to be good."Shawn Meyer, a reliable senior, gives Jones a third arm to use in his rotation. Meyer doesn't possess tremendous speed on his pitches, but will give the defenders behind him plenty of chances to make plays.
"He's not a hard thrower," Jones said. "He doesn't walk people, which is important. He's one of those guys that you have to make some plays for him, and if you do, he will keep you close."
Behind those three, the Cougars will use a bullpen that is best suited in the field, but will be forced to toss some innings with the limited roster."These guys are better position players," Jones said. "I just have to throw them in to pitch. Our philosophy is don't throw it down the middle, keep it away."
With the rotation's lack of depth, Jones is counting on his ultra-talented defenders to back up whoever may take the mound. When he's not pitching, Powless will take over at third base and Kyle Bray will play first to complete the corners.
In the middle, South Central graduated its short stop and second baseman, so Jones has been intent on finding a capable pair of replacements to fill the void."That was killer," Jones said. "We were all new in the fall up the middle."
Fischer Tharp made the move from outfield to short, and freshman Brett Harmeier took the reins at second. In the outfield, seniors Keith Hoffman and Austin Schwarm will see plenty of action, and the two capitalized on their chances in the fall, helping navigate South Central to the regular season crown.
"They're baseball guys," Jones said. "They work at it."
Rudy Hablewitz returns to the program after not going out during the fall, and could also see playing time in the outfield during his senior campaign.At catcher, senior Drake Ritter is not overly imposing physically, but is another player on Jones' roster that is solid at performing his job.
"The most important thing for me, you got to be able to block balls, he's really good at that," Jones said. "He's not a big stud at 6-2, but he blocks balls. You can't throw one by him."
This season's Cougars will fit the same mold at the plate; not the most gifted physically, but each does their job to pick up the win. Tharp will bat leadoff for the Cougars, and is as gifted as they come running the bags.
"He's a great base runner," Jones said. "Walks a ton, gets a lot of ground balls and puts the pressure on the defense, and he beats the ball out."Hoffman will likely bat third, and Bray should hit cleanup for South Central. Powless hit over .400 in the fall, and will bat in the five slot. The Cougars don't have the tools to blast a lot of balls over the outfield wall, but should chip away at opposing pitchers to plate some runs.
"They're not big strike out guys," Jones said. "We've spent a lot of time using the whole field, they bought into that for the most part. They've done pretty well."South Central played its role well in 2012, advancing deep into last season's playoffs. But as always, it's the last game that is thought of the most.
"What you remember is how far you advance," Jones said. "One of our goals is to naturally keep working and get better and better. What you think about last season is getting beat by St. Anthony."
With the Bulldogs up in Class 2A this spring, South Central figures to again be a tough out come May. The Cougars will take the first step toward another berth in sectional action next Monday when they host Altamont, as Monday's game against Mulberry Grove was canceled.
Braden Layer can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or at firstname.lastname@example.org