By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily 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.
Despite losing both starting pitchers and their head coach from last season, Ellison is led by 13 seniors, including a trio that were among the team's offensive leaders: catcher Justin Dingman, infielder K.J. Stark and shortstop Greg Green.
But 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 all 10 area baseball teams and what to look for this season:
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: 12-18, 3-11 in 12-5A
Key losses: P/OF Cody Brannon, 3B Billy Mee
Key players: OF Austin Greene (Jr.), 3B Chris Burroughs (Sr.)
Outlook: The Bulldawgs lost a pair of college-bound standouts in Brannon (Temple College) and Mee (Cisco Junior College), but should still have talent to contend in the district. Greene was a second-team all-district selection last year and has made a few plays in the outfield that have already turned heads in scrimmages. He, along with Burroughs and Ty Johnson will handle most of the pitching duties.
Last season: 19-12-1, 8-6 in 12-5A (area finalist)
Key losses: P/SS Ryan Bates, P Cal Somerville
Key players: C Justin Dingman (Sr.), OF/IF KJ Stark (Sr.), SS Greg Green (Sr.)
Outlook: Led by senior starters Bates and Somerville, the Eagles earned their first postseason berth since 2006 - the first season under coach Craig Martin - before being swept by Richardson Lake Highlands in the area round. But Martin left for his alma mater Temple, leaving an even deeper senior class led by Dingman, Green and Stark in the hands of longtime assistant Kyle Allred. Without any legitimate ace-candidates, the Eagles are changing to more of pitcher-by-committee approach, while becoming more of a small-ball team with a focus on bunting and team speed.
Last season: 13-10-1, 4-8 in 25-2A
Key losses: 1B Garret Daniels
Key players: P/1B Seth Hallmark (Sr.), C Doak Hensley (Sr.)
Outlook: Behind the well-charged battery of Hensley and Hallmark, the Buffaloes should compete for a playoff spot again. Helping with be a well-stocked pitching staff with Evelio Varela, who moved from Killeen in the offseason, and lefty James Mccorquodale. Outside of the hard-hitting Daniels, the Buffaloes also return the majority of its infield, including shortstop Clay Naverette, second baseman Ben Futrell and third baseman Michael Ramirez.
Last season: 19-12-1, 8-2 in 7-3A (regional quarterfinalist)
Key loss: SP Thomas Weber
Key players: 1B Tyler Craycraft (Sr.), DH Cort Dixon (Jr.)
Outlook: The Hornets lost just two seniors, though Weber (Hendrix College) was arguably one of the top players in program history. The returning core is talented, with Craycraft, Barton Courtney, Seth Barton and Micah Thompson all earning first-team all-district honors last season. Dixon, one of the three second-teamers, was Gatesville's top hitter last year, posting a .390 average.
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) for the Knights. Coach Glenn Cunningham will depend more heavily on Davis to fill the No. 2 hole left by Hansen.
Last season: 7-17-1, 2-9 in 8-4A
Key losses: SP/OF Anthony Jenkins
Key players: CF Ryan Jones (Sr.), UTIL Josh Yonker (Sr.)
Outlook: If Jones, Yonker and the rest of the batting order give plenty of run support to an inexperienced pitching staff that lost two all-district players from last season, the Roos have the opportunity to make the playoffs coming out of 8-4A. Waco Midway is the only current 8-4A team to make the playoffs last season.
Last season: 4-24, 0-10 in 25-4A
Key loss: OF Vann Millican
Key players: Brandon Evetts (Sr.), Seth Kendrick (Sr.)
Outlook: Former assistant coach Larry Lovett takes over a Badger program that went winless in district play last season but could find success now in 3A. Evetts was named the Badgers' most valuable pitcher last season, while Kendrick will be the team's No. 1 pitcher. Despite six seniors, the Badgers will be young, with three sophomores and a freshman seeing time.
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.
Last season: 4-22, 0-14 in 12-5A
Key players: 2B Matt Reed (Sr.), SS/P A.J. Gongora (Sr.)
Outlook: The Grey Wolves had a lot of inexperience last year in a very tough district. This year, that inexperience is more grown up, but the district hasn't gotten a lot easier. Still, behind Reed - the Grey Wolves leading hitter last season - and Gongora, Shoemaker looks to improve on last year's winless district season.