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MOUNT WASHINGTON - Perhaps not since the early 1990s with the high-powered softball program have expectations been as high for a spring sports team as they are this season for the Bullitt East baseball squad.
With all but two players returning from a team that posted a program best 27-7 mark last year, a record that included a 14-game winning streak, the Chargers are sitting amongst the state’s elite this season. Already, coaches in Kentucky have ranked Bullitt East 11th in the state to start the season.
With great expectations comes some pressure. That can be good or it can be bad. What it most certainly brings is a bulls’ eye on the team anytime they take the field.
That is just fine with veteran head coach Jeff Bowles.
‘We’ve talked about that with the kids,” the coach said earlier this week. “We’ve always talked about doing the hunting, but this year we’ll be the hunted.
“The kids have worked hard in the off-season,” Bowles added. “So that will work in our favor. That has motivated us. That’s a good thing.”
Last season, Bullitt East reached the championship game of the Sixth Region Tournament where they were defeated 7-2 by Pleasure Ridge Park. That team went on to win the state championship two weeks later.
With so many returning players, everybody is looking for more of the same. That is fine with Bowles.
“We have the same expectations and maybe more,” the coach said.
Again, the same hurdle stands in the way of the Chargers - PRP. The Panthers have ended Bullitt East’s season each of the past two seasons. The two powerhouses are not scheduled to meet during the regular season.
“In football we’ve talked about playing for state championships,” Bowles said as he is also an assistant football coach. “We won a regional (baseball) title in 2004 (while in the Eighth Region) but we want to get beyond that. Now it is PRP that is the hurdle.
“Moving to the Sixth Region has been good for us,” the coach continued. “If you want to win everything, you have to raise your level of play to that of PRP. I have great respect for coach (Bill) Miller and what he does over there.”
Bowles has also preached to his kids that there is a lot of baseball between now and a possible showdown with the Panthers in late May. PRP was the pre-season number one team in Kentucky in the voting of coaches.
“At the same time we still remember not getting out of the district in 2003,” the coach said. “I felt that might have been our best team. We’re not going to put the cart before the horse this year.”
It’s hard to figure out just where to start when it comes to the 2009 Chargers. There are standout players all over the field along with a deep pitching rotation.
At the varsity level, Bowles is looking at using five players in a normal rotation. Three of those pitchers have already won games in a regional tournament.
Heading up the group will be the junior pair of Brandon Alphin and Matt Bowles, the coaches’ son. They are pretty much a 1 and 1-A combination. Both are right handers who have already pitched for two varsity seasons.
There is little or no drop off when the coach gives the ball to seniors Justin Jones or Patrick Revel. Jones pitched the first game in the regional tournament last year while Revel won the first regional game in 2007 as a sophomore.
Alphin was the winning pitcher in the regional semi-final victory over Butler while Bowles took the mound in the final game against PRP last year.
The new pitcher is a familiar face as senior Zack McCarthy will also pitch. One of the most feared hitters in the Louisville area this season, McCarthy will pitch for the first time in a few seasons. Bowles sees him as a reliever to get the final few outs. McCarthy, who will throw right-handed when he plays in the field, will pitch from the left side.
There may not be a lot of innings remaining, but Bowles is confident that he can go down to four sophomores to get a few innings if needed. That group includes right-handers Christian Bailey, Chaz Jackson, Kyle Ethridge and Travis Myers.
The biggest question mark over the past six months has been who will replace Kory Humphrey as the team’s catcher. Humphrey graduated after starting just about every game for three straight seasons.
At this point, Bowles is looking at a committee to do the work. Senior Cory Johnson will get some starts as well as juniors Robbie Gibson and Ryan Kahl. Sophomore Travis Myers would also get some work and there is also the possibility of McCarthy doing some catching.
At first base, the first option will be Jones, but when he is pitching, either Ryan McClure or Josh Whitmer, a pair of juniors, could fill that spot.
The rest of the Charger infield is long on experience and talent. At second base, Jimmy Hoffman will be the every day starter again this season. On the left side of the infield, Matt Bowles will be the shortstop with Alphin at third. If Bowles is pitching, Alphin will move to short and Whitmer will play at third base.
Depth in the middle of the infield will come from Ethridge and Shane Valentine.
While spots will rotate some in the infield, that will not be the case in the outfield. Seniors Tyler Downs, Bobby Harrison and McCarthy will all return from last season and will start in center, left and right, respectively.
Some depth at those spots will come from Whitmer, Cody Morris, Jackson or Bailey.
While no coach is going to set a solid line-up or a batting order during the first few weeks of a high school baseball season, Bowles doesn’t have a lot of question marks at this point.
Harrison, who finished sixth in the 100-meter dash at the Class 2-A State Track Championships last year, will be the lead-off hitter. Bowles and Alphin will fill one of the next two spots to bat in front of McCarthy in the clean-up slot. Whitmer and Jones add to the power in the next two spots. Downs will return to bat ninth, in almost a second lead-off spot.
“There are no outs in that line-up,” Bowles said with a smile. “There is no relaxing.”
That doesn’t leave a lot of spots to fill.
“We might use a DH (designated hitter) more this year because a lot of people are swinging the bat well,” Bowles said. “We might do it with some of the pitchers. It will just depend on who is hot. There will be a lot of opportunities.”
With this talent, Bowles has beefed up the schedule. The season will start next Monday at Eastern and the highlight of week one will be a home game against St. Xavier on Thursday.
After a trip to Florida for spring break, Bullitt East will play its four district games over the next three weeks. Intermixed in those games will be key contests against Butler and North Hardin as well as games against Male, Elizabethtown and West Jessamine.
The weekend after the Kentucky Derby, Bullitt East will host the Charger Challenge. That will be a round-robin event that will involve Trinity, Harrison County and Lexington Catholic, three of the top teams in the state along with the Chargers.
“Like I said last year, if we stay healthy and I don’t screw it up, we should be pretty good,” Bowles said with a laugh.
There is also continuity on the coaching level. Craig Sharpe returns as the associate head coach while John Edelen will coach the junior-varsity and Chris Ryan the freshman team. There are also six volunteer coaches in the program.