Manhattan High baseball coach Don Hess is ready to see his team in action.
He’s practiced with them every day for weeks now, but because of inclement weather and spring break, the team’s opportunities to spend time on an actual baseball diamond have been few and far between.
Hess likes what he’s seen from his team in regard to hitting and pitching — both things you can practice inside. But when it comes to fielding and simulating actual baseball, the weather hasn’t cooperated.
“As a coach you see all kinds of weaknesses, but the fact that we haven’t been outside has really hurt our development,” Hess said. “We don’t have a spot to take ground balls or work on much defense, so we’re pretty good with the pitching right now, pretty good with the hitting right now, but the other team aspects we haven’t spent much time on.”
Ready or not, the Indians started their season today at 4 p.m. at Norvell Field with a doubleheader against Topeka High. After losing nine seniors from the team that finished in fourth place last year at the Class 6A state baseball tournament, there are plenty of spots to fill in the lineup.
Leading the way will be Manhattan’s three returning lettermen from last season, TJ Giller, Josh Klug and Jacob Priddle.
“You have to start with them as far as returning players,” Hess said. “They are our seniors and played varsity last year and got significant time.”
A talented and extremely large junior class will fill in the gaps for the Indians. Among the 19 players listed on the varsity roster, 12 are juniors. Hess mentioned Jacob Biller, Bret Fehr, Chris Klug and Josh Mullin as returners with varsity experience.
In regard to pitching, Hess said he has around seven guys who will all be competing for innings this year. Giller, Fehr, Biller, Chris Klug, Ethan Fabrizius, Henry de Noble and sophomore Jesse Steinbring will get the bulk of the work, with others getting the chance to contribute as the season goes on.
“Our pitching staff is as deep as it’s been,” Hess said. “We just don’t know who’s going to step to the front and be that big-game pitcher for us on a regular basis.”
After losing last year’s Centennial League player of the year in Derek Francis, someone will have to step into that role as the season goes on.
“The last half of the year, (Francis) pitched every big game we had, and won every big game,” Hess said. “So we’re needing to replace that role, but we do feel we have seven or eight guys that are very capable on the mound.”
In the infield, an injury to Jonah Webber, the favorite to win the job at shortstop, has forced some shuffling. Josh Klug, Giller, Chris Klug, Caleb Gorman and Jacob Biller may all be in the mix depending on who is pitching and who is swinging a hot bat. Mullin is expected to be the primary catcher this season.
“We’re counting on him to do the majority of the catching,” he said. “But we also have a good competition for that next spot between Alex Huerta and Tyler Wohler.”
In the outfield, Hess has a group of five guys with plenty of talent competing for the three spots. Kellen Myers, Fehr, Mike Leeper, Dustan Whipple and Priddle will all compete for time in the outfield, while also serving as the primary candidates to DH.
“We just haven’t been outside enough to really have somebody step up and take those positions, but we feel very comfortable with any of those five guys in the outfield,” Hess said. “We like our guys. We’re relatively inexperienced in some regards, but most of our guys played 19-and-under American Legion or select-team ball for other teams last summer, so we feel like they’ve competed at a level that’s very similar to a varsity situation.”