Bunceton Dragons baseball coach Dustin Ray isn’t one to shy away how he really feels about his team this fall.
Sure the Dragons have only 10 players suited out, four of which are starters. The Dragons may also be a year or two away from really contending in the CCAA and postseason.
But to hear Ray talk about his squad this season, the seven returning starters should give the Dragons the edge on varsity opponents.
Of course Bunceton wasn’t too bad in the spring while finishing 8-6 overall despite having two head coaches during the season. Now with Ray at the helm along with the help of his dad, Randy Ray, the Dragons may be in position to contend a little earlier than expected.
“From my perspective we will be decent,” Ray said. “I think we can compete for the top spot in the conference but that’s only if we make the plays that we are supposed to make and have timely hitting. If we do all of that, we’ll be tough. From what I know about the conference, Jamestown is probably the favorite. They lost a lot of good players but they have plenty of depth that gives them the edge.”
Although the Dragons can ill-afford a starter to go down with injury, Ray said right now the strength of the team has to be the offense. He said from watching the guys at practice and summer camps, they swing the bats pretty well.
The spring season also backs up Ray’s statement as the Dragons closed out the season with a team batting average of .291.
Pitching could also be a strength by season’s end, according to Ray.
“I don’t think we will give up very many free passes and we will fill up the zone and make teams put the ball in play,” Ray said. “Of course depth is definitely going to be a weakness along with speed. We are not very fast, but what we lack in speed we will make up for in intelligent baserunning.”
Back to the pitching this season for the Dragons. While the ERA of the team was acceptable last spring at 3.818, Ray said all four pitchers are returning this fall with seniors Layne Maddex and Brayden Doyle penciled in as No. 1 and 2 in the rotation. After that, Ray will look to sophomores Dillon Alpers and Hunter Shuffield to come in and throw some.
“I like Layne based on his ability to change speeds with different pitches,” Ray said. “And then with Brayden, he is a big, tall lefty. I think his command and demeanor on the mound gives him that bulldog mentality. As far as Dillon and Hunter, I just want them to come in and do their job when called upon. I don’t think we are going to walk people. I think this group as a whole will come in and throw strikes.”
The Dragons should also have a distinct advantage at the catcher position since Ray played that position in college. With his knowledge behind the plate, sophomore Jason Burnett should only get better not that he wasn’t good last spring after hitting .458 with 22 hits in 48 at bats with a team-leading 13 singles and eight doubles. He also finished second in RBIs with 13.
Ray said Burnett is the team captain this fall. “Jason is an all-around solid guy behind the plate,” Ray said. “He is the hardest worker on the team and it’s going to show in games.”
As for the infield, Ray said Doyle or Layne will platoon at first base. Although he likes Doyle better in the outfield, Ray said both players have solid gloves at first.
“Layne and Brayden will either hit 3-4 or 4-5 in the lineup based on their ability to drive the ball in the gaps,” Ray said. “Brayden led the team in hitting in the spring with a .486 hitting clip with three home runs and 16 RBIs so I expect him to be up there again this fall.”
The second base position could also feature a platoon system with seniors Austin Alpers and Dylan Flatt.
Ray said the two players are competing for a spot. “Either one will do the job,” Ray said. “I just want the best player there.”
Flatt returns after hitting .265 in the spring while Alpers finished with a .238 clip.
As for the left side of the infield, sophomore Dillon Alpers returns at shortstop. While hitting .257 in the spring with nine hits in 35 at bats, he also scored 14 runs.
Ray said Alpers will play short only if he makes the routine plays. “Dillon has a high baseball IQ,” Ray said. “He will probably hit No. 2 in the lineup. He likes to hit the ball backside and handles the bat well.”
Sophomore Hunter Shuffield also returns at third base for the Dragons. While hitting .341 in the spring with 15 hits in 44 at-bats, Shuffield also scored 18 runs and drove in six.
Ray said Shuffield is built to handle the hot corner. “He will hit in the 5 hole,” Ray said. “Hunter has a good bat and he will protect the meat of the order. The infielders have been quick learners. I’ve had to re-teach them everything but I think it will be a great bunch and I look for them to make the routine plays.”
Ray will also have his pick of players in the outfield. While junior Dakota Rose and sophomore Trevor Anderson return for the Dragons, Ray said other players in the mix to play in the outfield are senior Hunter Riechers, Doyle and Flatt.
“Every day for them is a battle to see who will play where,” Ray said of the outfielders. “They all have the ability to play all three spots, which is a good problem to have.”