A year ago, the Manhattan High baseball team made it to state with a roster dominated by juniors and just one sophomore.
This year, the majority of those underclassmen are back, creating one of the most senior-laden teams in the program’s history, each with the goal of getting back to the state tournament after a one-and-done appearance last May.
The season began today at 2 in Wichita with a triangular against Wichita East and Derby.
“We have 13 seniors, which could be the most we’ve ever carried, I’m not sure,” Manhattan head coach Don Hess said. “They’re all great kids and hopefully they come back and can work as a unit and accomplish some great things.”
Of last year’s six-man senior class, only three were everyday players, meaning many of Manhattan’s positions are already settled. Hess said his outfield is set, while the infield will still shift around some with the additions of Jonah Webber, who missed last year with an injury, and junior Garrett Francis. The team is also working in a new catcher after Josh Mullin opted not to play this spring.
“There are some key positions that we have to replace, because we had some guys put together some great years for us last year that are no longer with us,” Hess said. “But we feel like we have some good ballplayers that can step in.”
One strength for the Indians will be on the mound. Of last year’s senior class, only TJ Giller pitched, but by the end of the year, he was playing shortstop exclusively. The Indians return Henry de Noble, Jesse Steinbring, Ethan Fabrizius, Jacob Biller and Chris Klug from last year’s staff.
“If we have one particular strength this year, I’d like to think that it’s on the mound,” Hess said. “We feel like we have some guys that can put together, arguably, one of the better staffs we’ve ever had.”
With so many seniors this year, Hess said just four juniors are currently on varsity. Steinbring lettered a year ago, while Francis will be in the mix this year in the infield. Jake Olson and AJ Epperson will also likely see some time.
“Garrett Francis is really an extremely talented infielder,” Hess said. “He moves well and understands the game. AJ Epperson can hit with a lot of power, Jake Olson in the outfield is another productive hitter that we’ve added to the team.”
The team returns senior Bret Fehr, a Wichita State signee whose combination of speed and power made for a dangerous hitter at the top of the lineup. Hess said he thinks this team is in a good spot, but still has plenty to work on as it prepares for the season.
“Hitting, we need guys to step up to the plate and have a good approach and hit the ball hard,” he said. “And one thing you never know to start the year is team chemistry.
“Last year our seniors did a good job of leading the way, and that’s yet to be determined with this group because we’ve yet to compete.”
Hess said despite poor weather conditions that have limited the team’s chances to practice outside, he feels like the team is ahead of the curve because of a trip to Arizona over spring break.
“We were able to go down there and get in five quality practices, so when we came back, we felt like we were ahead of the curve,” he said. “We never have perfect weather it seems like, so we’re always indoors a lot. We’re not as far along as we’d like to be, but we’re OK.”