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SHEPHERDSVILLE – High expectations are nothing new for the Bullitt East Chargers when it comes to the baseball program.
Long one of the best programs in the state, the Chargers are looking to wrestle the Sixth Region title away from defending state champion Pleasure Ridge Park this spring. A year ago, the Panthers beat Bullitt East 5-1 in the semi-finals of the regional event.
With the team’s top pitchers returning, the Chargers have been ranked among the top-10 teams in the state in a number of pre-season polls. Veteran head coach Jeff Bowles likes the notoriety, but he knows it won’t mean anything when the umpire yells ‘play ball’.
“With just about any pre-season pool it is based on what you did last year,” the coach pointed out last week. “Last year we were 33-4 (and were the last undefeated team in the state) so we were pretty good. I’m not surprised with that this year.”
As any high school coach in Kentucky will tell you, the season doesn’t really get rolling until after spring break.
“We’ll see where we stand after spring break,” Bowles said. “We still have some spots that haven’t been decided.”
Unlike a lot of teams this winter, the Chargers have not been too limited in their workouts since Feb. 15 because of the weather. The team just goes inside to the Ninja Batting Cage in Mount Washington, an indoor facility that is owned by the parents of Bullitt East senior Zac Ching.
“We’re fortunate to have the Ninja indoor facility,” Bowles noted. “If you haven’t had an indoor spot, you haven’t practiced much this year. Some will be more ready than others.”
At this point, the optimism in Mount Washington is based more on return of a strong core group of seniors than the overall talent level. That top group of players includes Ching as well as Chase Patton and Alex Ralph. Ching has already signed with Wright State while Patton will play at Spalding next year and Ralph at Bellarmine.
Recently, Bullitt East senior Tyler Krauth committed to the University of the Cumberlands.
Ching, Patton and Ralph have a lot of varsity experience on the mound.
“We had 15 shut-outs last year,” Bowles pointed out of the highest total in the state. “Those three guys had a hand in a lot of those games. That’s a good thing. You need three pitchers to get out of the region.”
All three of those pitchers are right-handed. Ching can get the ball to the plate at near 90 mph.
“We don’t have a radar gun, but they all have velocity,” Bowles said with a smile. “I tell the guys that if you get outs, then you will pitch.”
At least over the first few weeks of the season Ralph will be out with an injury.
“That’s just an opportunity to get more people a chance,” Bowles pointed out.
Krauth will also be in the rotation this spring, but there are no shortage of candidates to pitch if the need arises. The lone left-hander is junior Hayden Davenport. Bowles will also be looking to senior Adrian Maddox to throw along with juniors Tate Hatfield, Austin Norris and Jacob Bowles (the coaches’ son).
Two other candidates to pitch are sophomores Kyle McKinley and Garrett Wilson. Those two players just joined the team after finishing up the basketball season.
“They all could start,” the coach said of the pitching group. “Everybody will get a start and a sting in relief and then we’ll see where we stand. It will take care of itself.”
The big question mark for the Chargers comes behind the plate where the team has to replace Hunter Wood who held the job for four years and is now playing at Western Kentucky University.
The two leading candidates to be behind the plate are junior Brayden Blair and senior Zac Masden. The two each caught a few innings at the varsity level a year ago. A third candidate to catch is sophomore Derrick Kromenacker.
“Both are capable,” Bowles said of Blair and Masden. “They would start for most other teams. It will come down to who swings the bat the best.”
On the infield, Patton will start at first base when he is not pitching and senior Kyle Starkey can also play there when Patton does pitch. The Chargers will also look at sophomores J.T. Morsey, Corey Plahuta and McKinley to work some innings.
At second base, Bowles will get a shot at the spot along with sophomore Clayton Stallings. At shortstop, Ching will be the starter when he is not pitching, but Ralph, McKinley, Bowles and Stallings could all fill the spot when Ching does take the mound.
Rounding out the infield at third base will be Ralph. However, senior Chase Williams, junior Austin Norris and sophomore Troy O’Brien will all get a look early in the season.
At this point, the pitcher is the outfield is not completely in focus. Bowles read off the names of seven players who could one of those three spots. That group included Patton and also included junior Morgun Willis, senior Cole Harmon as well as juniors Morgun Willis, Dillon Coffman, Jacob Moore and Hatfield. Wilson, a sophomore, could also be running down fly balls.
For at least a few weeks this will be a Bullitt East team that will be built on the fly.
“We have a lot of bats to replace from last year,” Bowles said. “We have a lot of candidates. We don’t return as much as we did last year. We’re in a different situation.”
Bullitt East has won ten consecutive district titles so that adding to that streak will be a priority. Still, it is at the regional level where the Charger seasons are judged. That will once again be the case as they look to advance to the state tourney for the first time since 2009.
Bowles has had a strong staff in the past and that group has not changed much for this season. Craig Sharpe returns as the associate head coach while Chris Ryan will coach the freshman team. The volunteer coaching staff includes Eric Moore, Scott Minogue, Scott Johnson, John Edelen, Brian Brashear and Kenny Hughes.