By JUSTIN RAINS
The Elkhart baseball team reached the near-pinnacle of the state’s baseball world last season, earning the program’s first state tournament in almost 20 years before falling in heartbreaking fashion to eventual champions Jarrell in the state semifinals.
Elsewhere, Palestine made a long-awaited return to the postseason, while Cayuga continued its strong run with a regional semifinal appearance.
Those three and countless others return to the diamond Monday with the official start of the 2013 baseball season. As that trio tries to return to the postseason, squads like Westwood and Frankston will hope to join them in the playoffs.
Below is a preview of the area’s 2013 baseball season, with each team’s overall and district record in parentheses when available:
For the first time since 2005, the Palestine baseball program was playoff-bound in 2012. But, that team will look slightly different from the one that takes the field in 2013.
The main difference will be in the dugout, where former pitching coach Austin Evans takes the reins of the program after former coach Joey Mason’s move into administration.
Evans returns a wealth of talent from 2012, including star slugger Austin Brown and battle-tested pitchers Chico Herod and Brian Gummelt, along with do-it-all sophomore Ryan Zavala.
That veteran pitching staff will be the rock that Palestine leans on in 2013 as the Wildcats hope to replace all three outfielders and their starting third baseman, all of whom were lost to graduation.
SEASON OPENER: 4:30 p.m. Monday, vs. Malakoff (JV, V)
For the first time in their high school careers, the current crop of Westwood upperclassmen will go into a season with the same head coach.
WHS coach James Cashion is hoping that stability helps his team, which started last season 5-4 before faltering mightily down the stretch.
But, realignment and the drop to Class 2A did the Westwood baseball program no favors. Westwood now calls District 19-2A home, along with state semifinalist Elkhart, regional finalist Central Heights and perennial playoff power Crockett.
Cashion will lean on his seniors, led by Lane Stringfield (P, INF) to help lead what could prove to be a young Panther team in 2013, and Cashion also expects Andrew Flowers, who pitched on the JV last season, to improve the pitching staff.
SEASON OPENER: 6 p.m. Monday, at Frankston
In talking with members of the Elkhart baseball team, last year’s state tournament loss still resonates, strongly.
From the infield dirt in, the Elkhart team taking the field in 2013 will look exactly like the one that walked off of it in 2012.
Led by all-state players Levi Smith (Stephen F. Austin) and Jacob Cheatham (Cisco College), the Elks return every starter from a solid infield in 2012, and lose only one pitcher.
Jordan White and Cheatham should lead the Elks pitching staff, which will have to deal with the loss of do-it-all star Cam Reeves from a year ago, but both White and Cheatham — along with Cole Bridges and Hunter Parker —logged quality innings a year ago.
Also returning is second baseman Brian Johnson, who had a breakout year up the middle for the Elks.
The only question mark, it seems, for the third-ranked Elks will be how to replace a strong outfield completely lost to graduation.
SEASON OPENER: 5:30 Monday, vs. Timpson
Under first-year coach Kyle Dezern last season, the Frankston baseball team fell one spot short of playoff qualification, finishing fourth.
The Indians will look to returning stars like senior Cole Shoemaker (SS) and sophomores Waylon Morris (P/OF) and Jordan Thomas (P/OF) — all of whom earned Dogwood Circle honors last year — to lead them to the postseason in 2013.
The Indians possess strong senior leadership, with seniors like Hunter Mewbourn (C), Tye Griffin (1B) and J.J. Kummer (3B) taking leadership roles alongside Shoemaker to form a savvy, veteran-filled infield.
The one weak-spot for the Indians in 2013 might be on the mound, where youth reigns supreme.
SEASON OPENER: 6 p.m. Monday, vs. Westwood
Many programs couldn’t handle the losses sustained by Cayuga due to graduation last year. But, the Wildcats are again focusing on a deep playoff run in 2013.
Having lost stars Jimmy Johnson, Jake Nash and Bo Sharp to graduation, the Wildcats must replace an all-state pitcher, do-it-all utility player and big-hitting first baseman.
Senior and Vernon College-signee Chantz Holland will lead the way, taking over the ace mantle from Johnson and also playing a significant role in the infield.
Move-ins Chandler and Wesley Rigdon should also help fill some gaps. Chandler went 7-2 on the mound as was his district’s Offensive Player of the Year last season as a freshman at Turkey Valley, while Wesley batted in the third-spot for that same team.
Also returning for the Wildcats are all-district infielder Payton Wallace, left-handed pitcher Hunter Jenkins and center fielder and pitcher Hunter Johnson.
SEASON OPENER: TBA Thursday, Alto tournament
The Sandies were bi-district finalists a year ago, but do have to replace all-everything player Cameron Boyd, as well as starting third baseman Jayson Johnson.
This season will be the first for Grapeland under new coach Steve Spatz.
SEASON OPENER: 6 p.m. Monday, vs. Groveton
Requests for information sent to Slocum and Neches were unreturned by press time.
Sports editor Justin Rains can be reached via email at email@example.com