By Alex Byington
Harker Heights Herald
Last season featured a bevy of college-bound talent, none bigger than the Belton duo of ace Dillon Newman and slugging shortstop Shane Hoelscher.
After leading the Tigers to the Region II-5A semifinal, the pair have since taken their talents to Baylor and Rice, respectively.
But like any good program, it's about plugging in the next guy and moving forward.
"I think if you run a program right, the guys that keep coming up are going to be just as ready as the guys that just left," Belton coach Eddie Cornblum said.
While the Tigers have bigger-than-normal holes to fill this year, several other area teams return the nucleus of what were playoff-caliber teams last season.
The biggest eye-popping returner comes from Salado, where center fielder Cole Calder returns his area-best .562 average and .680 on-base percentage to a senior-laden Eagles squad that is two years removed from winning the 2A state championship.
"This is our last year together, we're shooting for the stars you could say," Calder said. "We want to win state, there's no doubt about it, but it all starts here in the preseason and we're ready to get it rolling."
Below are capsules on what to look for this season from Belton, Harker Heights and Salado:
Last season: 34-8, 13-1 in 12-5A (regional semifinalist)
Key losses: SP/3B Dillon Newman, SS Shane Hoelscher
Key players: C Colbi Fuentes (Sr.), P Tyler Vail (Sr.)
Outlook: The Tigers lost the two best players in the area in ace pitcher Newman and hard-hitting shortstop Hoelscher and a total of 13 seniors overall, but don't expect Belton to have a down year. The team returns a host of talent, including all-district players Fuentes, a catcher, and Vail, who will consist of the team's battery this season. Also leading the hitting attack will be third baseman Brooks Mraz.
Last season: 17-15-1, 7-7 in 12-5A (area finalist)
Key losses: P/OF Sean Hansen, 1B/3B Jose Torres
Key players: P/DH Irvin Santamaria (Sr.), P/3B Bryce Davis (Sr.)
Outlook: With an incredible turnaround in the second half of district, the Knights won six of seven games and advanced to the area round of the playoffs before losing to Tyler Lee. Despite loses of Hansen and Torres, Heights returns a solid foundation centered around Santamaria, a two-way threat as leadoff hitter (.441, 5 HRs) and ace (3.04 ERA). Coach Glenn Cunningham will depend more heavily on Davis to fill the No. 2 hole left by Hansen.
Last season: 19-7, 10-2 in 25-2A (bi-district)
Key losses: DH Tyler Laughland, SP Trent Wagnon
Key players: OF Cole Calder (Sr.), P/1B Clint Scarborough (Sr.)
Outlook: Since being crowned the 2A state champions in 2008, the Eagles have had back-to-back postseason disappointments, including last year's bi-district sweep by Weimar. But with a talented senior class - led by all-state outfielder Calder and slugging first baseman/pitcher Scarborough - Salado has big-time expectations despite moving up to 3A this year.