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Coming off a 14-23 season which included another early exit in the 5th Region Tournament, the Elizabethtown Panthers believe this season has the possibilities to be much better.
The Panthers return a wealth of talent, albeit still young, but Elizabethtown coach Don Pitts hopes the growing pains of the last two years will pay off this season.
“I think we’ll be a much better all-around team,” Pitts said. “I think we have guys that know how to pitch. I think that comes from experience. I think we’ll put the ball in play more than in past. I like our team speed. We don’t have many juniors or seniors, but we have guys with another year of experience which will help.”
After reaching four consecutive region championships from 2007-10, including winning two, Elizabethtown has struggled by its standards. The Panthers have finished as the district runner-up the last two years and been bounced in the region tournament quarterfinals.
“My biggest concern isn’t from a baseball standpoint, but we haven’t been as successful,” Pitts said. “I wonder if we know how to win. We have the pieces and the talent to win. But from a baseball standpoint, we are going to be young. Can we sustain it for 36 games?”
The Panthers might only start two seniors and three juniors, relying on underclassmen once again. But their young players have had the chance to gain valuable experience.
Sophomore Zeke Pinkham returns for his third year at catcher. Pinkham batted .391 with nine doubles, 27 runs scored and 18 RBIs. Backing up Pinkham is Josh Hunt, another sophomore.
“I definitely think Zeke’s changed,” Pitts said. “He’s more of a leader this year. He’s played nearly 80 varsity games, so he knows what the coaching staff expects. You know with Zeke he’s going to work his tail off.”
Sophomore Cody Bridges, who split time between center field and first base last season, will anchor the outfield in center. Sophomore Conner Kindred takes over in left, while senior Garrett Morgan returns in right. Sophomore Austin Freyberger will see time in the outfield along with freshmen Jacob Simpson and Hunter Sullivan and sophomores Jesse Morris and Gavin Wood.
“I feel really comfortable from a defensive standpoint with our outfield,” Pitts said.
The only infield returnee is senior shortstop Cannon Pender. Junior Jon Tarrence will be at first after seeing some time there last year, junior Connor Kauffeld takes over at second for the graduated Brice Taylor and junior Preston Patterson inherits third base.
Sullivan will see time at second, shortstop and third depending on who is on the mound. Freshman Tyson Brown might see time at second, while freshman Jack Wilson could see action at first or third. Sophomore Tevin Lucas might also work his way into the infield rotation.
“Coach Eric Sullivan worked with our infield a lot and I’m very pleased with our growth,” Pitts said. “We’ve gotten a lot better fundamentally. My only concern is we haven’t had a ton of time on the field because of the weather.”
Pitching figures to be one of Elizabethtown’s strengths as its top three pitchers – Pender, Freyberger and Sullivan – from a year ago are back. Freyberger had a 3.12 ERA and led the team in wins with six. Sullivan picked up four wins. Also, Morgan, almost 21 months removed from Tommy John surgery, is pitching again.
Junior left-hander Jayden King, Kindred, Patterson and Bridges all figure to be in the mix for time on the mound. Freshman Zach McKinney and Wilson are two other options for Pitts.
“I think we have a lot of pitchers that are going to throw strikes,” Pitts said. “Cannon has had a lot of bad luck, but in his last three outings last year, he was lights-out. Austin had a solid year last year and Hunter is very solid. This is as good of a staff as we’ve had in several years.”
Offensively, the Panthers only had two players – Pinkham and Morgan – hit better than .300 last year and they only averaged 5.1 runs per game. Pitts believes those numbers will improve this season.
“I think another year of experience and getting stronger will help,” Pitts said. “I think we have a lot more potential this year. I think we have good gap power. I feel like we have a lot of guys that can do a lot of things. I think we’re more complete this year.”
That’s why the Panthers, who are off to a 2-0 start, are more optimistic about this season.
“We don’t measure our success by getting to the region tournament,” Pitts said. “That’s not what our goals as a program are. But if we keep getting there, one of these years we’ll break through.”
Chuck Jonescan be reached at (270) 505-1759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.