By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
At Belton, there is no settling for second-best.
That's why last season was so difficult, as the two-time defending District 12-5A champion Tigers (24-13, 11-3) were relegated to runner-up status after struggling with injuries and pitching woes during the district play.
But with a year under their belts, and some offseason focus on the mound, the Tigers have their sights set on being the best.
"That's the goal every year," Belton coach Eddie Cornblum said of winning district. "It's expected I think. It's not so much just shooting to get in the playoffs. We have a motto every year, 'It's 47 miles to our dreams' which is (the distance to the state tournament in) Round Rock."
Two years after Dillon Newman and Shane Hoelscher powered Belton four rounds deep before embarking on Division I careers at Baylor and Rice, respectively, the Tigers enter the season with a host of college-bound talent, including second baseman Max Hogan, first baseman/closer Ryan King and pitcher/shortstop Blayten Magana.
The senior trio combined for 129 hits, with Baylor signee Hogan raking for a team-leading .467 average and 36 runs scored, 43 hits, and six home runs while King added a district-leading nine bombs and 35 RBIs.
The Tigers aren't alone in their quest for a bounce-back season, with both Harker Heights (18-11, 6-8) and Ellison (18-12, 7-7) hoping several experienced returning starters can lead them back to the postseason after each missed out last season.
Last Season: 24-13, 11-3 12-5A (area finalist)
Outlook: After losing a pair of Division I talents, along with an injury to ace Tyler Vail, the Tigers couldn't win a third straight 12-5A championship. But with a trio of college-bound seniors leading the way, Belton could be in line to get back on top behind second base Baylor signee Max Hogan (2B), Blayten Magana (P/SS) and Ryan King (1B/CL), the reigning Daily Herald All-Area Newcomer of the Year.
Last Season: 7-20, 2-12 12-5A
Outlook: Struggling near the bottom of District 12-5A the last few seasons, if the Bulldawgs are to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008 (while in 4A), it'll depend on a major effort from four returning starters - all-distrct first-teamer Ty Johnson (3B), Austin Greene (OF), pitcher Jhar Devilme and catcher Warren Neely. Johnson will move up from the cleanup spot to No. 3 in Cove's lineup after hitting .422 with 8 HRs last season.
Last Season: 18-12, 7-7 12-5A
Outlook: Missing out on the playoffs last season, the Eagles return two starters after sending four to the college ranks. But Ellison isn't without talent - seniors Felix Marbury (CF) and Colby Reese (P), who missed all of last year with a shoulder injury, return as well as reigning All-District 12-5A co-Newcomer of the Year Tyler Bark, who will slide in as the starting first baseman and No. 2 pitcher to start the season.
Last Season: 19-9, 7-7 in 27-2A
Outlook: The Buffaloes return a lot of key bats from last year's team that started off hot, but had problems winning in district play. Shortstop Evilo Varela and second baseman Ben Futrell will be the table setters for a team that will have to score more than it did last season with the loss of ace Seth Hallmark. Varela should be the ace of the staff again, with James McCorquodale and Dustyn Espinoza filling out the staff.
Last Season: 17-12, 5-5 19-3A
Outlook: Gatesville finished fourth in District 19-3A and failed to make the playoffs last season for the first time since 2004. Senior pitcher Micah Thompson leads a core group of five seniors, four of whom have been on varsity since they were freshmen, that give the Hornets their best leadership in Graig Keeton's four seasons as head coach. Along with Thompson, seniors Allan Watson (C), Cort Dixon (2B/3B), Slayton Meyer (1B), Tyler English (P/Util.) and junior Tyler Jaynes (P) all aim to show that Gatesville still belongs in the playoffs.
Last Season: 18-11, 6-8 12-5A
Outlook: After graduating 12 seniors from last year's team - many of whom were pivotal in the 2010 playoff run - the Knights return four three-year starters - Emery Atkisson (2B/SS), J.T. Gilmore (CF), Stefan Flores (LF/P) and Hunter Mayo (3B/P), who will stabilize the top four spots in Heights' lineup. Mayo, who appeared mostly in relief the last two years, will take over as staff ace after the departure of Irvin Santamaria.
Last Season: 9-19, 3-7 8-4A
Outlook: The Roos tasted their first playoff in more than a decade last season and it wasn't even a true playoff. Killeen lost to Waco University in a fourth-place play-in game, extending its playoff drought to 14 years. But, the Roos were that close; seniors Zach Blankenship (2B) and Josh Allyn (SS), 8-4A all-district first-team selections last year, hope to get Killeen closer than close this season.
Last Season: 4-21, 1-9 25-3A
Outlook: After amassing just four wins a year ago, the Badgers will look to dig themselves out of the District 25-3A cellar by pairing four returning starters with a host of inexperienced youth, including sophomore Ralph Marez (1B), who started as a freshman. Senior Micah Harry (OF/P) brings experience with juniors Cullen Singleton (OF/P) and Justin Sooter (IF/P).
Last Season: 27-11, 10-2 25-3A (Region IV-3A semifinalist)
Outlook: The Chad Krempin era begins in Salado after longtime skipper Melvin Bates retired before taking an assistant's job under his son at Bartlett. Another big loss for the Eagles is all-state senior Bubba Luna, the reigning Daily Herald All-Area MVP who was a key figure for three years as both the team's ace and No. 3 hitter. With Luna also in Bartlett, the cupboard is rather bare with only one returning starter - junior Marshall Mann (3B).
Last Season: 7-23, 1-13 12-5A
Outlook: The Grey Wolves start a new season with a new head coach, former assistant Harry Zambrana. Shoemaker's new skipper worked under former head coach Randy Culp for six seasons. Culp didn't leave the Grey Wolves' cupboard bare when he left to be an assistant at Ellison. Shoemaker returns nine lettermen, including five starters, many of whom pitched at some point last season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Josh Allyn, Killeen, Sr. (SS)
One of two Roos seniors - along with Zach Blankenship - to return as all-district first-team selections from last year's team that finished the regular season tied for fourth in District 8-4A, but lost the subsequent play-in game to Waco University.
Emery Atkisson, Harker Heights, Sr. (2B, SS)
Batting out of the No. 3 hole, Atkisson led Heights with a .423 average, three home runs, and 27 RBIs while also scoring 20 runs as a junior before earning himself second-team All-District 12-5A and Daily Herald All-Area honors.
Micah Thompson, Gatesivlle, Sr. (P)
The Hornets' 19-3A first-team pitcher went 3-4 on the mound in 2011, striking out 46 batters in 32 2/3 innings. He also hit .389 and was an all-district shortstop candidate.
Marshall Mann, Salado, Jr. (3B)
Mann was the lone sophomore playing with 11 seniors and one junior last season, manning the hot corner during Salado's District 25-3A championship run. His experience will be key as the Eagles' lone returner.
Felix Marbury, Ellison, Sr. (CF)
The speedy first-team all-district selection paced the Eagles at the top of lineup and in the field, leading Ellison with a team-high 14 stolen bases to go along with four home runs as well.
Tyler Bark, Ellison, Jr. (1B, P)
A sophomore last season, Bark earned his place as 12-5A's co-Newcomer of the Year after batting .350 with a team-leading four homers and 24 RBIs.
Blayten Magana, Belton, Sr. (SS, P)
Magana went 6-4 for Belton last season with a 4.37 ERA while striking out 42 batters in 57 2/3 innings. He also hit .371 with seven home runs and 33 RBIs.
Ty Johnson, Copperas Cove, Sr. (3B, P)
The District 12-5A first-teamer hit .422 for the Bulldawgs last season and was one of the area's top power threats, hitting eight home runs and driving in 27 runs.
Ryan King, Belton, Sr. (1B, P)
King, in his first year on varsity for the Tigers, hit .388 with nine home runs and 34 RBIs. He also had an impressive .511 on-base percentage and scored 32 runs for Belton. This season he also expects to be the Tigers' closer.
Max Hogan, Belton, Sr. (2B)
Hogan drew a team-best 32 walks, hit six home runs - tied for third on the team - and drove in 22 runs, making the Texas Sports Writers Association 5A all-state third-team, the District 12-5A and Daily Herald's all-district and all-area first teams.
Ben Futrell, Florence, Sr. (2B)
Futrell was effective on the base paths for the Buffaloes last season, stealing 33 bases and scoring 32 runs. The senior also hit .338 with 20 RBIs and had a .909 fielding percentage at second base.
Evilo Varela, Florence, Sr. (SS, P)
Named to the 27-2A first team after transferring from Killeen, Varela hit .368 with two home runs and 18 RBIs last season. He also scored 22 runs for the Buffaloes and was effective on the mound, going 5-2 with a 1.75 ERA.
GAMES TO WATCH
March 29: Shoemaker at Copperas Cove, 7 p.m. - This game, between a pair of teams that are usually on the outside looking in on the playoff hunt, has been a toss-up in recent seasons. No matter their records, both teams seem to get up to play this one.
March 29: Temple at Ellison, 7 p.m. - Former Ellison coach Craig Martin returns to his old stomping grounds with the team that took a playoff spot that's usually decided between the Eagles and Harker Heights.
March 30: A&M Consolidated at Belton, 7 p.m. - The District 12-5A title goes through both of these two teams, so when the two juggernauts meet, there is almost always something to play for.
March 30: Ellison at Shoemaker, 7 p.m. - Randy Culp returns to Shoemaker but sits in the third-base dugout opposite the team he coached for seven years. Culp left Shoemaker after last season and is now an assistant baseball coach at Ellison, his alma mater.
April 6: Waco University at Killeen, 7 p.m. - After the two split their regular season games, University beat Killeen in an 8-4A fourth-place play-in game last year that kept the Roos out of the playoffs for the 14th straight season.
April 13: Jarrell at Florence, 6 p.m. - The Cougars put Florence in a tailspin with their 10-inning, 7-4 win in an early-season game last year. After a 15-2 start, the Buffs lost eight of their last 11 games, beginning with that loss to Jarrell.
April 13: Ellison at Harker Heights, 7 p.m. - Despite neither making the postseason last year, the last game of the regular season between these two usually holds playoff implications.
April 20: China Spring at Gatesville, 7 p.m. - The Hornets missed the playoffs for the first time since 2004 after their 6-4 loss to the Cougars in the regular season finale last season that broke a third-place tie between the two teams.
Tournaments to watch:
Harker Heights, Ellison, Shoemaker at the Waco Tournament.
Copperas Cove and Killeen at the Copperas Cove Bulldawg Classic.
Harker Heights and Shoemaker at the Wolf Pack Classic.
Kevin Posival and Nick Talbot contributed to this preview.