SALADO — In his first season, Chad Krempin showed that pure talent can sometimes supersede a lack of experience.
Now, the second-year Salado skipper is betting talent and experience — with 10 players who started last season returning — can supersede heightened expectations for the 2A-No. 7 ranked Eagles.
“They’ve prepared for this moment, so hopefully they take advantage of it,” Krempin said.
A year after graduating 11 seniors from a regional semifinalist squad, Krempin transformed a talented but young Salado squad that included 15 juniors and sophomores into a seventh consecutive playoff appearance and a trip to the Class 3A area round.
Back in the comfy confines of 2A following last summer’s realignment, Salado has all 15 back and a host of up-and-coming players filling up its freshman and JV teams this year.
Highlighting the varsity returners is a loaded pitching staff that included last season’s surprise ace in junior Casey Frazier, submariner Britton Hawes and 6-foot-7 senior flamethrower Reagan Bazar, among others.
“Those guys know what they’re doing, and they are pretty mature — they’ve thrown a lot, they’ve thrown in the summer, they’ve thrown in the fall,” Krempin said.
“Pitching in any (level) of baseball, you can score tons of runs, but if you can’t pitch, you’re not going to win a championship.”
This year’s Eagles will be a little more balanced with five juniors and four seniors littering Salado’s starting lineup.
Key among them will be senior shortstop Jon Franz, who Krempin said might have one of the best pitching arms on the team, and junior catcher Cole Haag, who returns to his cleanup spot in the lineup after pacing the Eagles offensively last year.
Last season: 19-14, 9-5 12-5A
Key player: Jared Janczak, Jr.
Outlook: The Tigers don’t have Dillon Newman or Blayten Magana taking the mound anymore, but Belton coach Eddie Cornblum isn’t too worried. He has a steady mix of pitchers always coming into the program. This year they include Devin Lovato, Jake Denolken and sophomores Dustin Tish and Shane Stafford. Belton also returns starters Janczak, junior shortstop Walker Winders, senior catcher Joe Pare and junior infielder Chase Cryer for a core that should have the Tigers contending for another district title.
COPPERAS COVE BULLDAWGS
Last season: 10-18, 6-8 12-5A
Key players: Joel Hogan, Sr. Julian Doubleday, Sr. Brandon Smith, Sr.
Outlook: Copperas Cove finished just outside the playoff picture last season, tying Harker Heights for fifth in district, but the Bulldawgs hope a roster full of returning players will propel them into the playoffs this season. The squad has a nice mixture of veteran leadership and up-and-coming talent, which could prove to difficult for other teams to contend with. The Bulldawgs have not made the playoffs since 2008, when they were a Class 4A program, and the losses of pitcher Jhar Devilme and center fielder Austin Greene, who both are now playing collegiately, will be tough to overcome.
Last season: 3-25, 2-12 12-5A
Key players: Tyler Bark, Sr., Ethan Schaefnocker, Sr.
Outlook: Last season the Eagles experienced some massive growing pains while working in several freshman and sophomores with no varsity experience. But after struggling to just three victories last season, Ellison head coach Kyle Allred is hoping a year under their belts will result in a return to form for an Eagles team that last reached the postseason in 2010. Leading the charge will be senior first baseman/pitcher Tyler Bark, as the Eagles will employ a pitcher-by-committee approach until somebody steps up.
Last season: 13-9, 6-8 27-2A
Key players: Clay Navarette, Sr., Alex Ramirez, Sr.
Outlook: The Buffaloes lost pitcher and shortstop Evilio Varela, the unprecedented leader from last year’s team, but returns senior captains Navarette and Ramirez. Navarette, who hit .312 last season with 15 RBIs, 17 runs and 22 stolen bases, is expected to pitch and play shortstop. Ramirez hit .407 last season, while scoring 18 runs. Also returning are senior Brandon Adams, juniors Peyton Person and Tate Leatherwood and sophomores Tyler Salis and Dallas Broekhuizen.
Last season: 18-8, 5-5 19-3A
Key players: Tyler Jaynes, Sr. Hunter Dean, Sr. Cullen Mayhew, Sr.
Outlook: Gatesville lost five seniors from last season’s team that fell just shy of making the playoffs, but the roster still has enough remaining talent to make a run at returning to the postseason for the first time in two seasons. The Hornets are deep at pitcher and, thanks to UIL realignment, the squad no longer has to deal with former rivals Robinson, Lorena and China Spring.
HARKER HEIGHTS KNIGHTS
Last season: 18-11, 6-8 12-5A
Key players: Damian May, Jr., Caleb Dean, Jr.
Outlook: Despite another winning season, including tying a regular season win total (18), the Knights missed out on the playoffs for a second straight year after being swept in District 12-5A by A&M Consolidated, Belton and Bryan. But in the new 8-5A, only Bryan returns, meaning Heights is hoping for a return to prominence in 2013. To do that, the Knights will have to replace several key leaders with the graduations of multi-year starters in shortstop Emery Atkisson, centerfielder J.T. Gilmore and pitchers Hunter Mayo. With five starters returning, including talented juniors May and Dean, Heights might just have the right mix of experience and talent to make that happen.
Last season: 6-18-1, 1-9 8-4A
Key player: Marcos Hinojos, Sr.
Outlook: The Roos get a fresh start in a new district with first-year head coach Donald Trcka, who took over at Killeen after longtime coach Mark Carranza stepped down following a one-win district season in 8-4A. Moving up to Class 5A, the Roos won’t have it much easier, but with three returning all-district second-team selections — Marcos Hinojos, Daniel Vega and John Rechtorovic — Killeen will have some vital experience going into a relatively unknown District 8-5A, which features six teams that relied heavily on seniors last year in District 12-5A. If the Roos can buy into Trcka’s system early, they could be right in the mix with the other Killeen ISD schools and Copperas Cove for the final playoff berth behind favorites Belton, Temple and Waco Midway, which was the 8-4A champion last season.
Last season: 4-20, 2-8 District 25-3A
Key Players: Justin Sooter, Sr. Cullen Singleton, Sr.
Outlook: First-year head coach Josh Hutcherson inherits a program that has struggled over the past few seasons under former head coaches Larry Lovett and Brian McBeth. It might seem elementary, but if the Badgers are going to earn a berth in the playoffs, they are going to have to focus on the game’s basics — pitching, hitting and fielding. If Lampasas can simply play sound baseball and Hutcherson can accentuate his players’ talents in ways past coaches could not, the Badgers could be in store for a solid season.
Last season: 29-13, 8-2 25-3A
Key player: Casey Frazier, Jr., Cole Haag, Jr.
Outlook: Despite playing with a mostly-sophomore dominated group, Salado made the playoffs for the seventh straight season under first-year head coach Chad Krempin. Not only that, the fledgling Eagles advanced to the area round before a Saturday sweep at the hands of Cuero. This year, with 10 players with starting experience returning, Salado’s expectations are centered on championships — be it tournament, district or state — and fueled by a pitching staff five-players deep, including healthy 6-foot-7 Louisiana-Lafayette signee Reagan Bazar
SHOEMAKER GREY WOLVES
Last season: 3-22-1, 1-13 12-5A
Key player: Raven Sauceda, So.
Outlook: Led by 12-5A newcomer of the year Raven Sauceda and all-district second-team pitcher Elijah Hilliard, the Grey Wolves hope to be more competitive in Harry Zambrana’s second season as the Shoemaker head coach. Sauceda, whose .405 batting average led the Grey Wolves in district, is just the type of hard-working player Zambrana can build a program around and Hilliard provides an experienced ace on the mound, but Shoemaker is going to have to find help for both guys if it’s going to compete for an 8-5A playoff berth behind favorites Belton, Temple and Waco Midway.
Last season: 20-16, 9-5 12-5A
Key player: Masin Hesse, Sr.
Outlook: Despite finishing fourth in District 12-5A last season, the Wildcats peaked in the playoffs, reaching the Region II-5A quarterfinals for the first time since 1997 before losing to former district foe and eventual state finalist A&M Consolidated. Temple lost a bevy of talented seniors and all-district second-team outfielder Zach Allen, who graduated in December and is already enrolled at TCU on a football scholarship, but head coach Craig Martin, Ellison’s former skipper, hopes the momentum generated in last year’s playoff run carries over in 8-5A, where the Wildcats figure to be one of the top three finishers.
Contact Alex Byington at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7566
Staff writers Nick Talbot, Kevin Posival and Clay Whittington contributed to this report.