The Prairie Home Panthers baseball team knows there is improvement to be made after finishing the fall season at 3-6 overall.
But with all nine starters back from the fall, six of which are also returning from the spring, the Panthers may not have far to go to challenge for the top spot in the CCAA conference in 2013.
Prairie Home baseball coach Jesse Oswald said the Panthers are looking to be very competitive this spring.
“We haven’t been able to be outside a whole lot, but that has given us time to fine-tune some small, fundamental things that often times get overlooked,” Oswald said. “I know they are itching to get outside and take some actual infield/outfield. Putting he ball in play is something that we have struggled with in the past and we have worked a lot on taking swings in practice and doing some different drills to get us ready for games.
“I feel like with the things we learned in the ball and the work we’ve been able to put in this spring will pay off for us. We might start off a little slow after being inside for so long with practices, but I think that things are coming together and we are starting to see the big picture.”
Maybe so, but even then will it be enough to overtake the likes of Pilot Grove, who Coach Oswald said he feels is the early favorite in the CCAA. He said the Tigers are the favorite because they won the conference tournament in the fall and made it to the district title game in 2012.
“I would like to think they are the team that everyone is gunning for,” Oswald said. “I think the conference will be competitive this spring and that other teams are getting hungry and would like to see a change in the conference leader. Pilot Grove is not going to be easy to beat and will not give many games away. Bunceton is another team with a lot of good ball players that we will have to show up for. Jamestown has some good talent coming up but I think they are still a little young to make a big splash. I would like to think that we are one of the top teams after Pilot Grove. I think we have what it takes but we are going to have to bring our best game night in and night out.”
Looking at the teams strengths this season, Oswald said the pitching has improve a lot since taking over the program in the fall. He said the Panthers have a lot of guys who have worked hard and gotten stronger and can step up and be relied on to throw strikes.
“Trever Huth is probably one of the most gifted pitchers in the area and he will be relied on to throw a lot of innings,” Oswald said. “Klay Holliday and Nathan Small are the next-two guys in line and both bring a little something different to the table. After that, I think Jonathan Brandes can be an innings eater. He throws a very hard ball and had some big innings for us in the fall this year. Our fielding improved a lot as the season went along in the fall. We hope to continue to build on that and not play teams and give them extra outs each inning.”
Of course the Panthers will have several weaknesses this season. Oswald said baserunning is something that has to improve. He said the players don’t always pick up the ball and sometimes run themselves into outs or slow up and stop to see where the ball is before they decide what to do next.
“They are really going to have to concentrate on picking up one of the coaches and trusting what they are telling them,” Oswald said. “We also need to improve on our hitting. We have improved but aren’t where we need to be to be successful against some top teams.”
As far as goals this spring, Oswald said competing for a conference and district title is the ultimate goal. He said the players also want to keep their mistakes down to a minimum. “In the past we have said six or few in a game and we should be in position to win,” Oswald said. “That includes errors, striking out looking, missed signs, etc. Six is probably too many against some of the better teams in our conference and district.”
If the Panthers are going to have success this season, Oswald will look to no other than senior Trever Huth to carry the load. While playing both shortstop and pitching, Oswald said Huth may be asked to play the outfield as well this season.
“Trever is arguably one of the most gifted pitchers in the area,” Oswald said. “He has very powerful pitches and can really keep hitters off-guard. He is able to live on the corners and knows what it takes to win games for us. He will also be able to overpower a lot of hitters and will be able to move inside and outside on some of the better hitters he will face and keep their hits from being strong hits.”
Klay Holliday will also get his share of starts this spring. Oswald said Holliday has gotten a lot stronger and has added a lot of zip to his fastball in just a year’s team. “Klay will be asked to start a lot of games and can be really effective once he gets going,” Oswald.
Another player that will see time on the mound this season is senior Nathan Small. Of course when Small is not on the mound for Prairie Home, Oswald said he will also handle the catching duties.
“Nathan is very smart on the mound and will be relied on to finish a lot of games,” Oswald said. “Nathan doesn’t have an overpowering fastball but has some off-speed pitches that will keep hitters off-balanced and not allow them to hit anything really hard. As far as his catching, he steps up and does everything we ask of him. His work ethic has improved and he wants to succeed which is really driving him to do his best.”
As for the infield, Oswald will look to Sam Distler at first, Ben Stock at second, Rayce Kendrick at short and Jonathan Brandes at third.
Oswald said Distler is a big target at first base who also has a strong bat whenever he stays in on pitches and concentrates on what he is doing.
As for Stock, Oswald said he is the only freshman and knows how to work hard. “Ben is capable of playing second base and having a lot of success doing it,” Oswald said. “He is getting stronger with his bat, but I think a lot of it has to do with his confidence. He needs to really get a hold of a ball or two and then once he knows he can do it he will really become a better hitter. He will also be asked to play catcher some as well.”
At shortstop, Oswald said Kendrick is very quick and active. He said Kendrick really tries to learn everything he can to make him better. “Rayce has also become a solid lead off hitter for us,” Oswald said. “He is a very hard worker day in and day out.”
As for the third base position, Oswald said Brandes plays that position well and has a strong arm, sometimes too strong when throwing it over to first. “Jonathan is also a very dangerous hitter at the plate and hits the ball hard and is capable of stepping up and being our No. 4 or 5 hitter,” Oswald said.
In the outfield for the Panthers, Oswald will look to Holliday in left, Kody Utterback in center and Shane Bushner in right.
Oswald said Holliday was asked to start playing outfield last spring and has done a great job of it. “Klay has a great arm and is very quick and has learned to track fly balls with ease,” Oswald said. “He is also a good hitter and very quick on the basepaths.”
As for Utterback in center, Oswald said Kody is a very good outfielder and goes after everything hit his way. “Kody’s quickness and ability to read the ball off the bat really allows him to run down a lot of balls that would normally be a single or double for a lot of people,” Oswald said.
Meanwhile, in right, Oswald said Bushner does a very good job at catching things that are hit to him. “He needs to learn to push himself to another level, but is very capable of starting in right field and also very deserving,” Oswald said. “He also has a lot of power behind his swings and can be very dangerous at the plate when he makes contact.”