Along with speed, power and dominant pitching — parity has taken a place among the mainstays of Seventh Region baseball.
In each of the past five years a different school has claimed the regional crown and this season, six of the top 25 teams in the Kentucky High School Baseball Coaches Association’s preseason poll hail from the region.
No. 3 Eastern leads the pack, followed by No. 4 St. Xavier, No. 6 Male, No. 13 Trinity and No. 19 Ballard.
“I expect us to be right in the mix,” said Eastern coach John Morris. “But I’m sure there’s about five or six other coaches that are telling their kids the same thing.”
The Eagles, who fell to St. X in the regional final last season, are led by a pair of senior UofL signees.
Six-foot-five ace Robert Strader throws a fastball in the mid-80s and went 4-0 with an ERA of 1.0 after moving up from junior varsity late last season.
According to Morris, the lefty “went from a JV pitcher to one of the best pitchers in the state by the end of the year.”
Jonah Philley (4-2, 2.13 ERA) is second in Eastern’s pitching rotation and is also a linchpin at shortstop. Philley hit .336 last season, including 31 RBI.
St. X returns eight seniors and will look to return to the state tournament under first-year coach Andy Porta.
Senior hurler Alex Mercer, a Western Kentucky University signee, went 5-1 last season with a 2.27 ERA, while senior centerfielder Jake Johnson batted .322 and stole 18 bases.
The introduction of less lively BBCOR bats this season will change the game, according to Porta.
“I think everybody is in the same boat with the BBCOR bats. You have to play small ball, the game’s going to change a bit,” said Porta.
The bats reduce the trampoline effect during contact and were implemented nationwide this season as a safety measure.
“It’s going to make a huge difference,” said Morris. “When balls are hit to the outfield, it’s probably going to cut down 10 to 15 feet. Home runs are going to be doubles or long fly balls.”
The reduction in pop may prove advantageous for the Male Bulldogs, whose modus operandi for years has been a superb bunting game and the ability to advance runners and manufacture runs.
“That’s what we do — get them on, get them over and get them in,” said Male coach Todd Driskell. “We try to play percentage and strategic baseball … because we just don’t have those guys that are going to come up and hit it out of the ballpark.”
PRP King of 6th
In the Sixth Region, all roads to the state tournament must go through Pleasure Ridge Park.
The No. 7 Panthers, regional winners in four of the last six years, are led by juniors Hunter Johnson (P/1B, .370) and Josh Beams (3B, .400).
Veteran Coach Bill Miller is entering his 33rd season and needs only five victories to move to No. 2 on the state’s all-time wins list.
Here’s a snapshot of Louisville-area teams:
No. 3 Eastern
Coach: John Morris (11th season).
Last Season: 31-8, lost to St. X in regional final.
Key Players: Robert Strader (Sr., LHP), Jonah Philley (Sr., P/SS) and Michael Davis (Sr., CF/P, .405, 21 RBI)
Coach Morris’ Outlook: “We have a good nucleus of guys; good pitching and defense. Our Achilles’ heel is going to be our hitting and how well we put runs together.”
No. 4 St. X
Coach: Andy Porta (first season).
Last Season: 28-11, lost to Central Hardin in state semifinal.
Key Players: Alex Mercer (Sr., P, .301, WKU signee), Jake Johnson (Sr., CF, .322, 18 stolen bases), Colin McFarland (Sr., P/INF, .333) and Andrew Willinger (Sr., 1B/DH, Florida Southern signee).
Coach Porta’s Outlook: “I like our chances. I love our team speed, defense and pitching. We’re not going to be the type of team that’s going to make mistakes and run ourselves out of innings and try to do too much.”
No. 6 Male
Coach: Todd Driskell (17th season).
Last Season: 27-7, lost to Eastern in first round of regional tournament.
Key Players: Trey Simpson (Sr., LHP), Blake Oyler (Sr., P) and Tyler Adams (Sr., DH).
Coach Driskell’s Outlook: “We have a solid team. Almost every single team (in the Seventh Region) has one legitimate pitcher that can shut you down. We’re trying to be patient and keep things in perspective…we’d like to be playing our best baseball at the end of the season.”
No. 13 Trinity
Coach: Steven Tompkins (10th season).
Last season: 17-13, lost to St. X in first round of regional tournament.
Key players: Austin Warner (Sr., LHP, Bellarmine signee), Connor Hill (Jr., SS) and Tyler Marshall (Jr., 2B)
Coach Tompkins’ Outlook: “We are young, but a lot of players gained valuable playing experience last season. With our strength of schedule, we will be very competitive at the end of the season.”
No. 19 Ballard
Coach: David Trager (second season).
Last season: 27-10, lost to Eastern in regional semifinal.
Key Players: Travis Kelley (Jr., CF), Dayton Rausch (Sr., SS, .400) and Wes Phan (Sr., 3B/P).
Coach Trager’s Outlook: “We’re going to have to pitch well and play defense to compete at the highest level.”
Rounding out Region Seven (2011 records in parentheses):
Christian Academy (24-10) lost four of its top five hitters to graduation, but returns senior Ian Holbrooke (LF/1B), who notched 10 home runs last season. The Centurions entered this week with a 4-0 record, including a 10-inning win over St. X on March 19.
Whitefield Academy (20-10) is looking to capture its fourth-straight district title and should get a boost when senior pitcher/catcher Cameron Smith (1.91 ERA, .385) returns. Smith underwent ACL surgery in November and is due back soon.
Manual (11-19) will be led by senior catcher Josh Bynum, who has signed with St. Joseph’s College (Ind.).
Third-year coach Josh Wolff characterized Bynum as possibly “the best defensive catcher in (the) region and state.” In their second game of this season, the Crimsons knocked off PRP 5-1.
Jeffersontown (18-13) returns seven starters, including senior P/1B Des Avis (.484) and senior P/SS Cody Maerz. Maerz, a Murray State signee, had a 2.00 ERA last season.
Atherton (11-20) returns seven starters including Spalding signee Javier Guerra (P/OF), who recorded seven double-digit strikeout performances in 2011.
Seneca (4-21) is led by Larry Williams, a 1992 alum, and will take the reins at his alma mater. The Redhawks return four starters, including seniors Ryan Fowler (P/SS) and P/2B Ryan Dichiara.
Waggener (14-14) returns four starters from a team that fell to Trinity in the district tournament. Senior catcher/3B Walter Frederick hit .350 last season.
KCD (16-6) will likely get major production from junior P/3B/catcher Will Smith, who hit .458, stole 16 bases and went 6-2 on the mound with a 0.87 ERA.
Moore (18-16) seniors Tyler Richards (P/SS, .323, 15 stolen bases) and Mark Hoff (1B, .378, 30 RBI, 20 stolen bases) headline a team that features four returning starters and a new coach in 22-year-old Trevor Moore.
No. 7 PRP
Coach: Bill Miller (33rd season).
Last season: 31-8, lost to Mercer County in state semifinal.
Key Players: Hunter Johnson (Jr., P/1B), Andrew Bramley (Sr., P), and Josh Beams (Jr., 3B).
Coach Miller’s Outlook: “This is probably the least experienced team that I’ve had in quite a few years. They’re not going to start out as good as we’d like them to, but it’s where you end a season.”
Coach: Greg Lauder (5th season).
Last season: 23-7, lost to Holy Cross in first round of regional.
Key Players: Blake Beamer (Sr., P/OF, 3.12 ERA) and Dallas Adkins (Jr., SS/2B, .412).
Coach Lauder’s Outlook: “After losing 12 seniors we will have a very young team with limited varsity experience.”
Coach: Jeff Bowles (10th season).
Last Season: 24-9, lost to PRP in the regionals.
Key Players: Coulten Maupin (Sr., P/CF, .340, 1.38 ERA), Tyler Minogue (Sr., SS, .376, 15 stolen bases) and Hunter Wood (Jr., catcher, .389).
Coach Bowles’ Outlook: “We return lots of experience from a 24-9 team that expects to contend for the 24th District and 6th Region titles.”
Coach: John Hodges (first season).
Last season: 19-16, lost to PRP in the regional final.
Key Players: Hunter Tipton (Sr., P/1B, Bryan College signee), Patrick Remines (Sr., P/1B) and Blake Dewsnap (Sr., catcher).
Coach Hodges’ Outlook: “We are a senior-loaded team with very little experience. It is a very talented group, but the big question is how will the lack of experience hurt us.”
Rounding out Region Six:
Holy Cross (1-18) returns senior Chad Conway (P/3B, .405, 25 RBI) after suffering a torn labrum midway through last season.
Valley (3-17) returns seniors Jake Allgood (P/CF) and Matt Owens (2B).
Western (1-10) first-year coach Jared Baker inherits six returning starters and will look to improve.
Doss (6-21) returns eight starters and will lean on shortstop Sherson Shermon for production. The senior hit .321 last season.
Evangel’s (2-14) senior SS/P Timmy Janes will be the team’s top arm.
Iroquois (1-8) junior P/2B Desmond Gibbs will lead Iroquois (1-8), which returns two starters and has a new coach in Travis Bell.
Portland Christian (4-14) first-year Portland Christian coach David Blake inherits all nine starters from last season’s squad that fell to Central in district play.
Fairdale (12-21) Coach David Hicks will lean on three-sport star Boo Crabtree to guide a squad that is lacking varsity experience. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound junior P/SS is also the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback and averaged 12.5 points and 8 rebounds last season for the basketball team.
North Bullitt (17-21) junior shortstop Clayton Kelly (.364) returns for the Eagles after missing the last 15 games of the 2011 season with a broken jaw.
Southern (14-16) returns seniors Scott Belt (P/SS), Sam Rein (P, INF), Blake Hall (utility) and Chris Fisher (CF) will anchor coach T.J. Graves’ first season.
Central (10-17) coach Grady Foster is expecting a “breakout season” from junior outfielder Kevin Campbell. Kamahl Hess (Sr., SS, .456) also returns.
Schools not listed did not respond to requests for information.
Contact columnist Chris Cahill at email@example.com.