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LaRue County coach Eric Allen has been preaching patience, not only to his team, but himself. He realized when he took the job in June there were going to be challenges ahead.
The Hawks were coming off a 29-10 season, which included their first 5th Region Tournament final appearance since winning it in 2003. The bulk of that team graduated, leaving a young nucleus for Allen to build around.
“Absolutely, we’re going to have to be patient,” Allen said. “Only Austin (McDowell) and Cole (Hughes) had started a varsity baseball game before this week. I don’t care how good of a baseball player you are, there’s going to be a learning curve. This is a whole new level.
“There is more pressure and the game’s faster,” he added. “There’s more strategy involved. There’s going to be an adjustment mentally or physically. It’s going to take some time. I have to keep reminding myself that.”
Allen takes over for Chris Price, who never had a losing season in eight years. Price guided the Hawks to a 183-91 record and eight 18th District titles.
Hughes and McDowell are the only starters returning from the team which lost to Central Hardin, 4-2 in the region final. Hughes will anchor the pitching staff once again, while McDowell shifts from right field to shortstop.
Hughes went 10-1 last season, but the rest of the staff is relatively inexperienced. Senior left-hander Jordan McGaw figures to be the No. 2 starter, but Allen said the rest of the staff is unsettled.
Allen hopes McDowell develops into his third starter. Freshmen Colby Skaggs and Dalton Metcalf both have shown promise early on working in relief, but Allen said both might start. Senior Kelton Ford, junior Dylon Hedgespeth, sophomore Blake Merryman and eighth-grader Cameron Dawson all will see time on the mound.
“Our pitching has been our strong point so far this year,” Allen said. “I feel like Cole is one of the top pitchers in the area. Jordan made his first varsity start against North Hardin and did a good job. He’s been throwing well.
“But we have a lot of question marks after that,” he added. “I’ve been encouraged by our younger arms. We’ve given up way too many walks, but that’s something that will be addressed and we’ll do a better job. We have to challenge hitters and throw strikes. I’m the most pleased with our pitching so far this year.”
The pitching staff hasn’t been helped early on by the team’s defense, which has made six or more errors in three of its first four games. Allen said he expects this to improve once players settle into their new roles.
“Our young defense has been a concern,” Allen said. “We have a nice indoor facility and we can get all the work we want in there. But it’s a nice, true flat turf surface. You don’t have bad hops like you do on a field. It’s a big difference going from fielding in there to live-game situations.”
Sophomore Koy Lindsey takes over behind the plate for Slade Owens, who graduated. Eighth-grader Matheo Lynn will back up Lindsey and will get some time as a designated hitter.
McGaw inherits the first base job, while Skaggs starts at third. Hughes played third base last year, but Allen plans to rest Hughes when he’s not on the mound although he will be in the lineup as the designated hitter.
Second base is a battle between sophomore Turner Cottrell and Dawson. Hedgespeth will play first when McGaw pitches and Ford could see time there as well. Metcalf or Dawson will start at shortstop when McDowell is on the mound.
The outfield will be senior-laden with Austin Hinton in center, Matt Hornback in right and Caleb Canter in left. Freshman Chandler Lynn and Ford both will see time in the outfield as well.
Allen expected the offense to be behind with the lack of preseason work on the field because of inclement weather. But he has been encouraged with the team’s progress in only a week.
That is what Allen is focused on. He wants to see improvements throughout the season and hopes to have the Hawks peaking at the end of the year.
“We just need to keep working hard to get to where we need to be,” Allen said. “We want to keep getting better. It’s going to take some time, but we’re going to get to where we need to be.”
Chuck Jones can be reached at (270) 505-1759 or email@example.com.