HARTVILLE Instead of taking the annual spring break trip some place more southern - and warmer - this year, the Lake Center Christian baseball team elected to stay put.
The Tigers eschewed a trip to South Carolina or Florida in favor of remaining in Ohio, practicing and waiting a bit longer than they have un recent years to play their first game of the season. That wait then got extended as - in a development that is anything but new or unique - the weather forced the cancelation of all games they had scheduled for the first week of the campaign.
Veteran LCC head coach and athletic director Shane Byler explained that although coaches and players enjoyed previous spring break trips and the plan is to take more trips in the future, taking a year off from them was intentional.
“First time in four years we didn't go. It was planned … we just decided we were going to take year off because we had done so many (trips) in the past few years,” Byler said. “It was definitely different, but in a way, it allowed everybody to just relax a little bit.”
In years they’ve taken spring break trips, Byler noted, the Tigers have had to rush to get ready for an earlier start to the season so that they didn’t go to South Carolina, where they played in the Cal Ripken Experience tournament, unready to compete.
That sometimes led to a feeling of being hurried, so taking a year off was a chance for more practice time - be it indoors or outside - before kicking off the season. When the Tigers finally did get on the field for a game, they packed three into two days as they battled former Portage Trail Conference rival Waterloo in a single game and played Tuscarawas Central Catholic in a doubleheader.
After a win over the Vikings, who left the PTC in search of a league in which they could be more competitive across all sports, LCC split its doubleheader with Tuscarawas Central Catholic and three games in two days showed the Tigers quite a bit about themselves in both their areas of strength and those parts of their game that remain a work in progress.
“In my mind, we got from those games what we were hoping for and what we expected,” Byler said. “We did a great job putting balls in play and we were aggressive on the bases. Our defense was solid and our pitching good on the whole … we just had two innings we didn't have good control and that cost us.”
Senior Will Caudle and junior Brandon Yoder have logged most of the innings so far for the Tigers, but overall, the pitching staff has issued 23 walks in 19 innings. Giving out free passes is a recipe for trouble for any team and Byler, now in his seventh season at the helm, knows that in the long run, his pitchers will have to improve their consistency in the strike zone or else, it will be a challenging season.
He takes encouragement from the fact that the team has nine returning players from last season and that level of experience can be a steadying force for a team that is figuring out its identity.
The Catch-22 for LCC is that while those nine returning players have varsity experience on their resumes, some of them are playing new positions or at a minimum, positions where they have less experience than they’ve garnered at other spots on the field. “We have a group of nine returning guys who saw varsity action last year and a very promising group of three freshmen,” Byler said. “We do have some new guys in new positions … catching, center field, shortstop, but those guys all have gotten quality experience in those positions so that should help.”
The there seniors on the roster are Caudle (P/IF), Ben Price (C/1B/OF) and Austin Guy (P/IF/OF), but Caudle is the only member of that tro with multiple varsity letters won. Nearly half the roster is staffed by a talented, experienced junior class that includes Yoder and fellow pitcher Matt Starcher and outfielder Blake Sommers.
The freshmen to whom Byler alluded, Thomas Fulk, Madoc Fether and Kendall Kaufman, all play multiple positions, which is a theme for the Tigers. Only Sommers and sophomore James Abernathy don’t have multiple positional designations by their name on the roster and even they could see time at more than one spot in the outfield.
One aspect of the opening weekend that the Tigers fully expect to continue throughout the season is their overall approach to the game and trying to force the action in order to put pressure on their opponents.
“I like our team and we're going to be a team that is very aggressive in all phases of the game, at the plate, running the bases and defensively,” Byler said.
They may have gotten a later start to the season than they have the past few years, but the Tigers are seeking to get up to speed quickly and capitalize on the opportunities in front of them.
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