By Carl Holcomb
Through the cover of darkness the Cougars prowled in preparedness on the baseball field and now the lights are shining the spotlight for East Hardy Baseball to avenge the loss in the sectional championship last year and take the path further to the state tournament in Charleston this season.
East Hardy knows the main objective is to win games with the hopes of improving on a 17-16 record en route to the next level.
Taking the grappling hooks to steal the bases and finding other tools on the utility belt to make this season successful is East Hardy skipper Chad Williams in his third season along with assistants Brent Strawderman, Eric Heflin, and Tyler Kerr.[private] The Cougars start the journey on the road at Romney against Class AAA Hampshire tonight and return for the home opener against Broadway, Va. on Friday.
If that wasn’t a tough enough start to the year, there’s more with a visit to Class AA Petersburg on Monday and a trip to Class AAA Spring Mills on Tuesday.
There will be a slate of single A teams starting with Paw Paw next Wednesday.
The dates everyone in Hardy County should have circled this season is for the battles against cross-county rival Moorefield with both games a week apart starting in Baker on April 1 and heading to George Hott Field on April 8.
East Hardy will also be playing Class AAA Musselman, Page County, Va., plus Class AA schools Berkeley Springs, Frankfort and Keyser to name a few.
The Cougars have a strong lineup which is led by 2015 Class A first team all-state members senior shortstop Bryce Strawderman, junior outfielder/infielder Austin Whetzel, and special honorable mention junior outfielder/pitcher Corey McDonald.
All of these players spent time in the off-season improving their game with the American Legion Baseball.
Strawderman is known for his defensive abilities and baserunning skills and Whetzel was a force at the plate last season.
McDonald had one of the best fastballs in the area last year on the mound and made diving catches in the outfield look easy.
Joining Strawderman in the infield will be Brett Tharp at third base, Phillip Mullin at second base, and Clay Skovron at first base and behind the plate is senior Jesse Miller. Whetzel will be utilized in the infield during certain lineup situations as will sophomore Nick Miller who is tagged to be the designated hitter along with junior Tommy Mullins who will see time as a catcher and freshman Logan Whetzel will join the mix in the infield.
Jesse Miller proved to be an amazing defensive catcher last season and made it difficult for runners to advance with his strong arm connecting to second base.
The outfield is projected to have senior Tim Hahn, junior Corey McDonald, and Austin Whetzel, but there will be a plethora of backups ready to dive into an outfield spot including junior Ashton Mathias, plus freshmen Aden Funkhouser and Jeffery Mills.
All of these athletes showed grit and determination with heart and hustle on the state football runner-up squad this season and the potential to have that work ethic translate to success on the baseball diamond is tremendous.
There are four new players working hard to play in the outfield including seniors Zach Kremer and Anthony Miller, plus junior Antone Tavares and sophomore Luis Calderon.
East Hardy has a solid group of hitters and are working on a good pitching rotation with McDonald, Strawderman, Tharp, Skovron, Mathias, and Funkhouser.
The Cougars have their sights on winning and will not back down from the prowl with heart and hustle.
Coach Williams Q & A
What is your coaching philosophy?
“Win. Win ball games, that’s what we’re here for.
How do you feel about your schedule’s competitiveness?
I think we play as tough of a schedule as anybody. When I look at single A schedules around the state, I think us and Moorefield probably have two of the toughest schedules in single A. We’re playing Page County, Musselman, Broadway, Spring Mills, teams like that are going to be better than any single A teams we’re going to see until come tournament time. You want to be competitive with those guys this time of year. If we can compete with Page County, Musselman and those guys, then we can compete with anybody in single A. We have the same schedule as last year, except we’re not playing Man. Other than that it is the same.
What are your goals and outlook for the year?
The goal is to win a state championship. We were on Wheeling Island about three months ago and I think everybody has bought in that it is possible to win a state championship here. It’s been almost 30 years, so we’re due. This is the best team we’ve had in at least three years.
How do you improve on last year to reach the state tournament?
We’ve got to hit the ball better. We’re looking at a team batting average of over .400 as a goal. Defensively, I thought we decent last year and there’s definitely room for improvement, but there were too many errors still. We need to develop some more arms. I’m real confident in Corey [McDonald] obviously and in Bryce [Strawderman]. You’ve got Brett [Tharp], Ashton [Mathias], and Clay [Skovron], between those three it would be nice to develop three solid arms out of those three.
What are your player positions and contributions?
Bryce Strawderman: Bryce will hit leadoff and play short[stop]. He’s our number two man on the mound right now. He is definitely our leader out there and Bryce has a lot of responsibilities in that leadership role. He has handled it and in the eighth season he has played for me, he knows what I expect of him. He knows he is held to a higher standard than everyone else here. He set his goal of hitting .600 this year. There is no reason that’s not a possibility.
Brett Tharp: In the two-hole, you’ve got Brett. Brett will play third and he will play short when Bryce is pitching. Of course he’ll pitch some too. Out of Brett, we’re looking for him to develop the ability to hit a curveball. He was a great fastball hitter last year. The book is out and I don’t care if everyone from Moorefield reads it, because they know that you need to throw him curveballs. As long as he does that, he’s a great fastball hitter. He hit about .450 last year and as long as he keeps developing that and we know how athletic he is, when he gets on the bases we know what he can do.
Corey McDonald: In the three-hole, you’ve got Corey McDonald. Corey is also going to be our number one pitcher and our opening day pitcher next Wednesday. He will also start in center field. Corey is competitive and so are all these other guys. I have watched them compete for a long time. Corey didn’t hit the ball as well as he wanted to last year and needs to get the bat working better. He needs to continue to play that solid defense and be that bulldog on the mound that we know he can.
Austin Whetzel: In the four-hole you have Austin Whetzel. Austin is absolutely killing the ball right now. He’s probably hitting the ball as well in BP as anybody we have. Austin hit over .400 last year and close to 60 RBIs. He’s right there in a prime RBI spot again, because I expect the three guys in front of him to be hitting north of .400 and then also stealing bases when they’re on. Austin has to be there to drive them in. Austin will be a floater guy depending on who is pitching. He will play outfield and infield, he’s sort of our utility guy.
Jesse Miller: In the five-hole, we’ve got Jesse Miller. Jesse I think, is a great defensive catcher. I think the two best defensive catchers in West Virginia are in Hardy County. Jesse does a great job behind the plate last year and was hitting about .350 and we’re looking for him to get his average up north of .400 and continue to play that solid defense. We look for him to continue in that leadership role along with Bryce, those are the guys you rely on for the leadership roles. Jesse really embraced it in football season and has embraced it so far in baseball.
Those are our five returning starters, past them the guys I project to start is Phillip Mullin at second base.
Phillip Mullin: Phillip started occasionally last year and played outfield. He is making the transition to infield. Putting him in the infield with Brett, Clay [Skovron], and Bryce, we have more speed in the infield than East Hardy’s probably ever had. I can take that infield and compete in some 4×100 meter relays. Phillip has a nice bat. He’s a real coachable kid. He’s learning defensively and he hasn’t played second base since Little League. He has a learning curve, but he is learning.
Clay Skovron: Clay will be at first base. He is shaping up in that mix to be our number three pitcher. Defensively, Clay is as good at first base as anyone I can remember at East Hardy in my time here. There’s something about Clay which was the same way with his brother, they don’t necessarily do everything in an orthodox manner, but Clay will flat out play and compete and somehow manages to get the job done no matter how he does it.
Tim Hahn: I project Tim will play somewhere in the outfield, probably center field when Corey is pitching and left field when Corey is not pitching. Tim is excited for this year, because he’s never been a starter for a baseball team. He’s been a real good team player and all he’s done is run bases and get the occasional at-bat. Tim is excited for the opportunity to get out on the baseball field every day.
Those are the eight right now, then the other positions are up for grabs.
Ashton Mathias has really shown a lot this year. Last year he had trouble with the way he practiced and didn’t earn enough to get playing time. He’s a good ball player and he’s working at it this year. If we had to start today, he’s probably our number three pitcher. He’s been a nice surprise for us and is on track to be the other starting outfielder.
Competing for the DH spot will be Nick Miller and Tommy Mullins. Nick didn’t play last year and we’re glad to have him out this year. If you’ve seen him play football, then you know the kind of athlete he is. Nick is a real big, strong kid and real athletic for as big as he is too. He has some pop in his bat and I’m looking for someone like Nick in the bottom of the order with power. It’s nice to have that home run hitter down there in the eight-hole where pitchers are spitting you some fastballs just trying to get through so there’s nobody on base when you get over to the top. Tommy is the same way with a lot of pop in his bat. He is another big, strong kid with power. Whatever I do with that DH spot, I’m looking for some power coming out of the bottom of the order.
Next we have our freshmen: Jeffrey Mills, Aden Funkhouser, and Logan Whetzel, all three of those guys are in the mix too. Jeffrey and Aden were both starters on the football team, so we’ve seen what they can do athletically. Logan is a hard working kid and does everything you ask of him. He’s surprised me, better than I thought he was going to be. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see at least one of those guys or all three of them starting by the middle of the season. We only have three freshmen, they’re a small class, but what we do have is a solid class.
Zach Kremer is a senior, but he hasn’t played high school baseball yet. Zach was a good player when he was younger and I was excited when he told me he was going to play this year. I wish we could have had Zach for his full time. Zach will contribute and he is hitting well in BP, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen him play in a live baseball game. The potential is there for Zach to help us out.
Luis Calderon moved here and is new to us this year. He played football and wrestled and decided to give baseball a shot, but he hasn’t played baseball before. Luis is learning and we’ll see what happens with him. Tony Tavares is another one who hasn’t played baseball. He’s out here working and giving it a shot. Anthony Miller is another one out here. Anthony played during his sophomore year, but didn’t play last year. He decided to come out and give it another shot this year.
These guys haven’t played in game action, so it’s hard to say what they will do.
How do you feel about your baserunning?
I love our team speed. Our first three batters are a threat to steal base at any time. I told you with the speed we have in the infield, we could compete in a 4×100 meter relay. I love the team speed, but baserunning isn’t just about speed. Are you smart on the base paths? There’s a lot that goes into it. You have to pay attention to what the pitcher is doing, timing out looks, seeing what his moves are, when he side steps, when he gives the high kick, if you want to steal bases. As far as running the bases, you need to know what is going on out there. Yes, you have to pay attention to the coaches, but you can’t just be a robot out there and do exactly what they are telling you. You have to be smart enough to know what is going on and steal bases on your own. If you see what is going on and have the ability to steal before Brent [Strawderman] or I have a chance to tell you, then take the extra base. If you see the base, you need to take it. Bryce led us in steals last year and that’s what makes Bryce a good baserunner is his instincts. He pays attention to things and picks up on things. People think he is really fast and he’s not and it was the same way in football. He just sees things and is able to go faster than he thinks he is with his head.
How important is discipline at the plate?
Just hit the ball. Some people step in there with a real patient approach, but I’m not going to expect Corey and Bryce to hit the same way. Corey is going to step in and take a hack, but Bryce is going to figure out how to manipulate it to find his pitch. There’s no wrong way to do it. It’s what works best for you and if you can’t find what works best for you, then I’ll try to help you.
If you start to put too much thought into baseball, then it starts to become more difficult than it should be.
How important is throwing a first-pitch strike?
It’s vital, especially starting off an inning. When you start off an inning with a ball, then you set a bad tone for the inning. If you are behind in the count, then hitters can start boxing up the pitch they want to see. If you get ahead in the count early, then you control the at-bat and throw what you want to throw.
How important is communication on the field, especially between pitcher and catcher?
That’s one thing Jesse does really well, he communicates. I like to have that one guy that communicates. In football, you have your quarterback and your middle linebacker, those are the only ones talking. That’s the same deal in baseball, I want Jesse to take control as much as he can. He’s good with communication and has called our plays in football for two years.
What impresses you the most about your team?
Their desire to win. You would think that is something you’d take for granted, but it’s not. A lot of teams don’t have that desire and willingness to win. It’s hard to coach somebody who doesn’t care if he wins. These guys work hard and not just working for themselves. We’ve got older guys helping out younger guys and vice-versa. All five of our returning starters are stepping up and helping those around them. You look at these two guys [Bryce & Corey], it’s 6:30 and it’s starting to get dark out and these guys are putting extra work in on their own. That’s the kind of work we are getting. Looking at all five of our starters, they’re all putting in that work.
How important is fielding in the game of baseball?
There are different parts. To me, you’ve got to be able to pitch, you’ve got to be able to hit, and you’ve got to be able to field. You’ve got to be able to run the bases. It’s a pretty simple game. I don’t know that one is more important than the other necessarily. There’s nothing more disheartening to a pitcher than to make an out, then watching someone boot the ball and have to step up on the mound and do it again.
How important is it for outfielders to hit a cut-off person?
Not very, I mean it depends on your situation. If you’re playing outfield and you’re good at what you’re doing and you’re trying to throw a runner out, you’d better not need a cut-off and just throw the ball where it needs to get. People over blow the importance of hitting a cut-off a lot. Go watch a college baseball game or a pro baseball game, none of them are hitting a cut-off person. If they’re throwing out someone at a base, they’re throwing to the base. That’s what is important. I would put more stock on knowing where to throw the ball. Sometimes it’s appropriate to throw to the cut-off and sometimes it’s appropriate to take that shot to the base. As far as taking the cut-off every time, no, throw the ball.
How do you feel about the team chemistry?
It’s great. These kids really get along. A lot of these guys are three-sport guys and are spending a lot of time together all year, so they better like each other.
How important is it to be aggressive and hustle on defense?
Hustle is ultimately important in any sport, in every sport. It’s what you do in every sport, if you’re not going to hustle and don’t have the desire to hustle to make the play, then don’t play. If you want to be lazy, then learn to play a video game. We want guys who will work to win.
What does it mean to wear the green and gold and to have the community support?
It’s a good baseball community. People turn out for baseball here, they like baseball. I like those big games. Our home opener is against Broadway, a good local team coming to town. I hope we have those stands packed for the game. It’s unseasonably warm for this time of year and it’s a great time to get out and watch us start our quest to win that state championship.
Assistant Coaches: Brent Strawderman – When I first took the head coaching job, Brent was a big part of it talking me into taking the job. I liked being the assistant and I told Brent I’d take it if he helped me and he’s been a great help for the third year in a row. Brent does as much as I do.
Eric Heflin & Tyler Kerr – This year I’m thrilled to add two new assistant coaches, two former players, both of them have played for me. Tyler Kerr and Eric Heflin both played in the state tournament and both were three year starters. They know what they’re doing and Eric is a teacher in the system, but we lucked out with Tyler. He graduated in December [Concord] after a great college football career and he’s going to medical school, but it doesn’t start until August. We talked him into taking a volunteer spot and both of them are volunteering their time. They are hired as volunteers and have been a great help. They are young enough to relate to the kids real well and with their experience, most of these kids watched them playing growing up. There’s a lot of respect there for them. There’s a lot more you can get done in practice with four coaches, instead of just two. It’s nice to have.”[/private]