A look at the four teams in the area

Two consecutive years of being a solid 5A program on the verge of the state tournament has given Lansing baseball some serious cheddar moving forward into 2018.

They will have to overcome some key losses, but the team is rolling into a new campaign off of its first league title since 2009 and will enter the final season of the Kaw Valley League (KVL) as the defending champions after winning 10 straight to take last year’s crown.

Overall at 12-10, the Lions have plenty of reasons to think about more gold at the end of the tunnel as Michael Basler enters his third season as the head coach.

“Although we lost eight seniors from last year’s team we have several returning players that have multiple years of varsity experience that should help our team establish themselves this year,” Basler said. “I feel like from top to bottom we have more guys that have played competitive baseball in our program than any other year I can remember. This has helped us learn, grow and progress faster than we have as a team the last couple of years. 

“Pitching will again be a key to our success this season and we return five guys that have all been on the mound in varsity action a year ago.”

The returns of Dakota Sill and Jayden Raymond will also be buoyed by Elliott Wilk, Alex Russell, Caleb Adams, Derrick Williamson and Claye Howard. Garrett Bull Jr., Jahleal Sweet and Max Romine also will be a factor.

It only helps to counteract the graduation departures of Josh Robinson, Dryden Dalbey, Tanner Williams and Blaise Bell.

“Last year we had three guys that had power and the ability to change the game in one swing of the bat,” Basler said. “This year’s team does not possess that kind of power but I feel like we have the chance to be a good offensive club.

“Our pitching staff lost a couple seniors that gave us quality starts game after game and we knew what we were going to get in their starts.”

Goals such as winning the final KVL title and winning a regional are high on the pecking order for the Lions while the team also aims for a .300 batting average at minimum this campaign.

“A lot of our guys worked really hard last summer in the weight room and then coming out to the baseball field and working on their offensive approach,” Basler said. “That is the second summer we have done that and our guys have really bought into that and improved. I feel like this team has the potential to be a very good offensive team. We are faster at every position. The time we spent on the small ball game in the summer has made us more dynamic at the plate. We by no stretch have power guys like Tanner and Dryden in our lineup this year but from top to bottom our lineup has the chance to be good.”

Winning a league title? It should be expected, according to Sill.

“I feel it’s like our duty, because we kind of killed it last year, so if we don’t win it, it will be kind of disappointing,” Sill said. “The last wins, we really came together as a team and wanted to play for each other and not for ourselves. It connects in practices more and that’s where you determine who you are playing for. When you put the team goals first in practice you show you want it more for the team.

“Everyone sees our goals and wants the same thing. Everyone is coming together.”

It doesn’t hurt that the freshmen have come out strong.

“The freshmen have a really competitive mindset and are really athletic,” Sill said. “I had a couple freshmen tell me they are coming for my spot this season and I took it seriously. It makes you think you have to out-work this kid and I need to do my best to do it for the team and keep my position.

“I love the competition and it drives me to be the best person.”

The non-conference schedule will be a great way to prepare for the conference and postseason races as the Lions will take on Shawnee Heights, Blue Valley North, Bishop Miege, Leavenworth, Gardner and Shawnee Mission North.

It could all add up to another memorable season.

“Reflecting back on a year ago I feel like our road to the KVL title was a great accomplishment for the 2017 team,” Basler said. “We had to win eight games in 10 days and our margin for error was zero, it was like playing eight Game 7s, but going through that made us tougher and more confident and a lot of returning players were a big part of that run a year ago.”

Players like Wilk see a lot of positives heading into the new year.

“We got a lot of players returning from the past couple of years that we made regional runs with and should bring experience to the team,” Wilk said. “We know we are right there and with just a couple of things we can make it to state. We just have to clean up some little fundamental things and do better and getting more rallies going.

“We’ve had some pretty solid defense through the years and team chemistry – we need to keep that going. We have a lot of new pitchers this year and have some experience coming back on the mound. It will still be grind-it-out style. We keep our heads up and don’t get down easily. We can make another deep run at regionals, maybe get to state and win the conference title again.”

 

Leavenworth

A lot of big arms graduated from 2017 rosters and no one was hit more than the Leavenworth Pioneers’ program.

Two years ago, it was the big three that saw Tommy Barnhouse take his talents to Wichita State.

Now, they will have to overcome the departures of Collin Jones and Josh Lucas who were a big part of a 13-9 team that went 5-6 in Sunflower League play and once again made a Class 5A state tournament push before falling 3-0 to Shawnee Heights in the regional championship.

This year, the Pioneers will have senior catcher Chase Broeker back behind the plate and Dylan McLain, a junior who will be one of the key guys stepping to the bump to hopefully continue head coach Joe Allison’s recent run of success with his aces.

Toss in a promising junior Steele Sadler and the Pioneers have what it takes to make a run.

“Chase is a Northwest Missouri commit and one of the best catchers in the state and the heart of our lineup,” Allison said. “McLain is our leadoff hitter with great speed and will eat up a lot of innings for us on the mound. Steele has a great arm in centerfield and he will be our leader in the outfield. We expect big things from him in the lineup.”

“With the loss of big arms last year, we have to have new and younger guys step up this year,” McLain said. “So far, we have done pretty decent at keeping the ball in the zone, the velocity is not completely there so we are going to need our defense to play extremely solid. Eric Harding has really stepped up so far and is going to be pitching for us quite a bit and I think he will settle in fine with how many years of baseball he has under his belt.”

They will need to do well to step up for the losses of Jones and Lucas as well as Dalton Watkins and Jacob Anderson who were some of the better players around with great batting and plays in the field.

The bats will need to be consistent also, something that has plagued the team in the past.

“Streaky hitting is a part of the game, it’s going to happen,” Sadler said. “We take our batting practice very seriously. If we can execute situational hitting like we’re expected to, we will have success this season.

“There’s a number of things I love about this team. Our drive and hunger to get better every day is a great thing. We work hard and it shows. The chemistry is strong. Whether we are in the locker room or on the field, it’s a family atmosphere. There isn’t much that needs boosting. We all seem to have the right attitude and mindset for this year.”

That attitude has resonated with their head coach.

“Our strength this year will be our work ethic and preparation,” Allison said. “We will do our best to out-work our opponents and be better prepared. With Chase leading the way our young team will be in good hands.  

“Our weakness is limited varsity experience. We are only returning three varsity players that saw significant amount of time. I have high confidence in the abilities of our new players, but time will tell how quickly they adapt to the high level of competition that we will see.”

Despite roster turnover, Allison still sees his team holding on to big expectations once again and in their final year of Sunflower League play.  

“Our goal this season is simple – be competitive every pitch,” Allison said. “With a fairly young team, we need to focus on each pitch, each inning, of every game. The big picture will take care of itself. We will make mistakes and we will also surprise some people. What we cannot do is panic when adversity strikes because it will quite frequently this season.”

Then of course there is the final season of Sunflower League play to contend with.

“I feel extremely confident going into the new league this year with how many players we will have with the Sunflower League experience, atmosphere, competitiveness and talent,” McLain said. “My favorite memories with the league are playing against guys that get drafted and all the guys that go DI, it’s good for our players to see that and maybe even talk to them so we can see what it takes to get to the top.”

 

Basehor-Linwood

It didn’t seem possible early on, but the Basehor-Linwood Bobcats shook off a tumultuous start to the previous season to get hot in the nick of time to make memories many thought inconceivable.

Finishing 8-11 in the regular season and with a modest 5-7 KVL mark, the Bobcats rang off an impressive regional weekend and moved to the Class 4A-I state tournament before battling to a 6-2 quarterfinal defeat to No. 2 seed Augusta.

A state bid? It happened, and now it’s about trying to replicate the same results with similar roster change and a lot of youth in tow.

“We return 12 of 18 from our regional/state roster, as well as six of nine from last year’s starting lineup,” head coach Andrew See said. “Going into this season right now, we see our strengths as our defense and pitching. We are going to get more athletic at some defensive spots with new starters stepping in. We see our pitching being deeper than it was last year from top to bottom as well.

“When you lose your No. 2-4 hitters from your state starting lineup, hitting is going to be something that we will need to focus on. However, once we see who the new starters will be in the lineup, we foresee us being able to put some runs up consistently. We won't know until we play the games though.”

Three key veterans include Jacob Robinette, Jackson Jennings and Chase Torkelson who all bring some key elements to the Bobcats’ lineup.

Robinette will be coming back for his third varsity season and was a first-team all-KVL selection last year for the second year in a row. He will be the focal point of the BLHS offense and returns the highest batting average from the team last year as well as being the top RBI man.

Jennings will man centerfield and will key the defense while Torkelson closed out the regional games as a freshman and returns looking for a bigger role on the mound.

They will all play key roles in replacing Zach McKnight, Dante Nelson and Jacob Markovich.   

“All three were main cogs in our lineup and defense,” See said. “While Dante was our No. 1 starting pitcher, Zach was our catcher graduating and that means we lose his leadership for the defense and Jacob was a solid bat in the middle of our lineup.”

But enough talent returns to keep the Bobcat aspirations high.

“We believe that we can compete at a high level this year in every series,” See said. “We as team will strive for a KVL title, we want to win the last one. Also, a return trip to state at the end of May will be our goal again.”

Some of the players see similarities in what last year’s teams rolled with toward the postseason and how this squad is opening up 2018.

“We have a lot of good, young talent and have some good, young sophomores that could really improve our game this year,” senior pitcher Mason Hooker said. “Our defense is going to be pretty exceptional, our batting will have to come together a little bit and I think we have some good talent on the pitching staff this year. 

“Last year, we finally came together after we started the season with some issue. We began focusing on one game at a time and not on the big picture. We started getting our pitching staff together, improving our communication and our hitting really came together. We had some pretty good hitters.”

Some believe that the older kids will need to dial into their experiences of last year to help pull those younger players along and into the flow of what worked a year ago.

“We have to restart this season and work our way up and build back up,” senior shortstop Tuckker Johnson said. “I think (the seniors) can handle the pressure (of higher expectations). We have to take charge and captain the team. I am going to tell the younger kids to not take anything for granted. 

“(The younger kids) know we have been there before. During our struggles last year, we always had each others’ backs when we made a mistake and never let them down. We liked each other and respected each other up as things went up and didn’t start that way, obviously.”

It doesn’t hurt that the underclassmen have made themselves noticeable in a positive way.

“They have good personalities and an ambition to do what we did last year and go to state,” Hooker said. “The seniors and returning juniors, we’ve been there, so we can tell them what it’s like and what they need to get there.”

 

Pleasant Ridge

A year ago, things didn’t go that well for the Pleasant Ridge Rams’ baseball team as they stumbled to a 6-14 overall record and a quick out in the sub-state tournament, losing to rivals Maur Hill-Mount Academy.

A lot of it was a mix of hitting and pitching inconsistency combined with a tougher than expected schedule.

Now, a new coach steps up to take charge as Justin Sloop is now the man in the Rams’ dugout trusted to pull the strings for a potential rebuild in 2018.

Sloop has some important pieces to count on, including senior Konner Walker, who returns after an injury-plagued junior season.

“Konner will look to be one of the team leaders and brings a good glove, bat and pitching,” Sloop said. “Cole Blanke, Eli Schwinn and Clayton Richter all bring experience and pitching and Logan Baker and Dayton Flack bring experience.”

The Rams lost pitchers Tanner Morris and Reid Herken and Ashton Watkins with all bringing a decent bat to the plate, so those holes will have to be filled.

“Some strengths that I see earlier on with this team is their willingness to come to practice every day and work to get better,” Sloop said. “A weakness that we hope we can develop into a strength is our pitching staff, because of losing our No. 1 and No. 2 pitchers from last year's team.

“This year we will look to improve every day. Just like we talk about at practice, you are only as good as your last practice and only as good as your last game. If you come ready to work every day then everything else will take care of itself.”

Logan Baker feels that the regular coaching changes may not help in reality, but likes the direction of the team this spring and that’s thanks in part to the newcomers.

“It’s hard to adjust year after year because you do new things every year and new coaching styles,” Baker said. “We are building off of each and every coach. Our freshmen have a lot of work ethic and try to come in every day, trying to get better. The younger guys are working out very well. The older players are buying in and we have a goal this year and want to get there: We want a .500 record and be better than last year.”

Walker realizes that having three coaches in three years is tough for any team, but he is also just happy to be healthy and playing again.

“I didn’t get to play the last two years,” Walker said. “I had a bone defect in my left knee – basically where your knee is rubbing so much that there is no cartilage there to protect your bone. I was on my butt for the whole summer. It’s more painful not being involved. I came and watched and try to do little things on my own. I am feeling better than I have.

“There is a sense of desperation to go out with a bang.”