Caleb Smith had the highest batting average in Houston coach Brent Hall’s 10-year tenure last season.
What can the now senior do for an encore?
“He’s capable of doing even better,” Hall said of Smith, who hit a robust .537 in 2008. “He’s done a lot to help improve himself. I definitely think he’ll be around the .500 mark. I don’t have any doubt in what he’ll be able to do for us.”
Smith, who spent the summer improving his skills at camps at Oklahoma State and Arkansas, will be the cornerstone of what Hall believes will be an improved offense for the 2009 Tigers.
Houston figures to get a much-needed lift from Kyle Poynter, a transfer from Lebanon who will provide Smith protection from the clean-up spot. Leading off is veteran David Weybright, a strong contact hitter and three-year starter.
Smith was 29-for-54 at the plate en route to all-state honors his junior season. He led the team in runs (29), stolen bases (13) and was hit by 13 pitches. He struck out just five times – although the last one, at the district tournament, led to an ejection that will force Smith to sit out of Monday’s season opener at Salem.
Smith started slowly last season hitting third. Hall moved him back to his familiar No. 2 hole and he thrived at the plate. Hall hopes Smith will have the same type of success hitting third this year.
“The biggest thing was for hitting .537, Caleb didn’t have many RBIs,” Hall said. “I’m hoping we can get David and (No. 2 hitter) Chris (Mooney) on in front of him. If they do, they’ll have to pitch to Caleb.”
Houston will need another strong season from Smith to rebound from last year’s disappointing 11-14 mark. The Tigers, who moved up to Class 3 in the offseason, are seeded sixth based on last year’s conference standings for the season-opening SCA Tournament.
Hall said he spent most of last season encouraging the team to live up to the 2007 Tigers’ second-place state finish. He learned that each season is its own, and each team has its own identity.
This year’s version won’t excel in one particular area, Hall said. He thinks the Tigers will need to be strong in all facets for the opportunity to contend for the postseason.
“I don’t think we’re the type of team that can drop 10 runs on you and win games that way,” Hall said. “We’ll have to pitch it well, field it well and be solid all the way around.”
Houston will rely on improved production from several players on its roster. Mooney will bat second after hitting .175 in 57 at-bats at the bottom of last year’s lineup. J.R. Knetzer, who will play first base and bat fifth, has just three varsity at-bats, and starting second baseman Kaleb Poynter had two at-bats last year.
Sophomore Eli Smith, who hit .235 in limited time, takes over starting duties at shortstop. Left field has come down to a four-way battle between Ty Foster, Brandon Belt, Jacob Case and Kenny Barton.
One player Hall expects immediate contributions from is Kyle Poynter, who made big splashes on the football and basketball teams. He was a single short of hitting for the cycle in the team’s Saturday scrimmage, including a home run to center field.
Poynter’s biggest impact may be on the mound. Hall said Poynter, who will be the staff ace, has good location with his pitches and a high leg kick that makes it difficult to pick up the ball.
“He’s just a really solid player,” Hall said. “He’s definitely our most polished player.”
Mooney will be No. 2 in the rotation after throwing just 8 1/3 innings on the varsity level last year. Hall said Mooney, who surrendered 15 hits and 11 earned runs while striking out six, will rely on his strong breaking ball and changing speeds.
“It will be interesting to see this year how he goes with his demeanor,” Hall said. “Will he pout around a little bit or will he accept the challenge and suck it up? Time will tell with him and the No. 2.”
The rest of the rotation will consist of senior David Foster, Eli Smith and Weybright. Foster was 1-1 with a 3.87 ERA in 12 2/3 innings last year, and Weybright had an 0-2 record and 4.13 ERA in just over 20 innings.
Hall, who coached many of the players during the summer, said he focused on fundamental aspects of the game – hitting behind and moving runners over and pickoff plays – that failed last year’s team. He hopes those little things will pay off this season.
“You try to match up what we’ve got against what you think everyone else will have,” Hall said. “I definitely think we’ll be more competitive and can contend for a championship down the line.”