Last season, Manhattan High’s baseball team practiced for one week before its season was canceled because of the coronavirus.
This spring, the Indians already have been at work for three weeks, but head coach Don Hess still has plenty of questions about his team entering Thursday’s season opener against defending 5A state champion Seaman.
For that reason, Hess plans to shuffle his lineup often over the next few weeks. He hopes his varied approach will help answer some of his questions.
The most important one: What can you bring?
“That’s my philosophy this year: ‘What can you bring that we have to have in a lineup?’” Hess said. “That’s going to determine who gets in who and who doesn’t.”
The Indians will bring back three contributors this season from the 2019 team that lost to Derby in the regional finals.
Braden Dinkel, who caught and played third base two seasons ago, will play shortstop in 2021.
Cade Perkins will reprise his role as pitcher and first baseman.
Hess said Manhattan expects “big things” from its top left-hander.
Fellow pitcher Dayne Aschenbrenner will play a large role on the Indians’ staff and everywhere else, really. Hess said Aschenbrenner can play every position, including catcher.
In 2018, then-freshman Aschenbrenner wowed coaches by throwing a “dominant” inning.
But his responsibilities at catcher and third base prevented the Indians from using him as often as they wanted on the mound in 2019.
Hess cited velocity as strengths for both Aschenbrenner and Dinkel, but he didn’t offer specifics.
He wants them focused on recording outs — not mileage.
“I don’t want them to have to try and throw in a certain velocity to be successful,” Hess said.
“So many times nowadays, everybody’s just worried about velocity rather than art. They certainly throw hard enough to be power pitchers, for sure.”
At the plate, Manhattan is excited about sophomore outfielder Ian Luce. Not just because he can hit for power and leg out extra-base hits, but because he understands the cerebral side of hitting. Hess said Luce is “very polished” at the plate for his age.
Other younger Indians have shown flashes in batting practice, too, but Hess wants to see more consistency from his bats.
He understands that his underclassmen, all of whom will make their high school debuts this year, might need a few weeks to shed their first-time jitters.
“You need to evolve a little bit as a hitter,” Hess said.
“And it’s not so much the technical aspects; sometimes it’s the mental aspects — you know, being able to swing at good pitches and pitch recognition and things like that. Sometimes those just take a while because we have some guys who didn’t get to play last summer (and) definitely didn’t play last spring.”
The Indians’ early season schedule won’t make the adjustment any easier.
Seaman has won eight state titles under coach Steve Bushnell. Washburn Rural, which Manhattan will play April 9, eliminated the Indians in the 2018 regional finals.
But as Hess put it, the first few weeks simply will serve as a “gauge” for the rest of the season. Contending for the Centennial League and making a postseason run still are on his list of goals (and expectations), but Manhattan has seven series to prepare its youthful roster for those moments. That’s more than Hess could say a year ago.
“The fact that we haven’t played for two years makes you a little nervous, but it also makes you extremely excited,” Hess said. “It will just be nice to get out, step out on the green grass and compete again with the knowledge that, as the year goes on, hopefully we’re going to get better and better and gel.”