A new season brings many questions for the Houston baseball team.
How will an inexperienced pitching staff perform?
Can players handle more significant roles in the batting order?
Is a talented freshman class ready to contribute on the varsity level?
Admittedly, coach Brent Hall doesn’t have the answers. Yet.
“We have a lot of guys playing a lot of different roles and a lot of guys in positions they haven’t been in before,” said Hall, who enters his 14th season with the Tigers. “From what I’ve seen so far, they can do it. But it’s not going to be easy. There will be some tough times. How they get through those times will determine how successful we will be.”
The pitching staff, which was the staple of last year’s team that went 17-5 and won the SCA tournament and regular season titles, is undergoing a compete overhaul. Gone are staff aces Kyle Poynter, a two-time all-stater and the conference player of the year, and Chris Mooney, an all-conference selection. Assuming their roles will be a trio of seniors who have little mound experience.
Lucas Cooperman, Eli Smith and Kaleb Poynter combined to pitch 22 of the team’s 134 innings last season. Cooperman threw 19 of those.
“To tell you which one is the ace? I still don’t have any idea. On any given day, they are all our ace,” Hall said. “Probably that will depend on consistency as the year goes on. They are all capable of going out and putting together a good outing. In the same breath, they are all capable of going out there and not having such a good outing.”
Hall said it would be important that Cooperman, a left-hander who developed a splitter during the offseason, pound the strike zone and work ahead of hitters. He was 1-0 last season with a 5.53 ERA. He struck out 21 and walked 15.
Despite just one appearance — a three-inning loss in which he gave up four hits and two runs — Smith is considered one of the team’s top options. Hall said he has a good curveball and above-average change-up.
Poynter has the least experience. But Hall said he has pitched the best of the trio in the preseason.
Freshmen Devin Coulter and Aaron Cantrell provide two more pitching options for Houston.
“To tell you who we’re going to throw in game one? We still don’t know,” Hall said.
Offensively, Cooperman returns as the team’s leadoff hitter. He batted .365 last year while leading the Tigers with 28 runs scored.
Poynter, who Hall said was easily the team’s best all-around athlete, moves up three slots to second in the lineup. He was second on the team with 23 RBIs last year — five of those coming in Houston’s district semifinal victory against Ava.
Smith will bat third after hitting .365 with 22 RBIs and 22 runs as the Tigers’ clean-up hitter last season.
Nathan McCarthy, the team’s returning catcher, will move from the bottom of the lineup to the important No. 4 hole. He batted .143 in 49 at-bats last year.
“There will be a lot of pressure on him,” Hall said. “I’m fairly confident that our first three hitters will get on base. He’s going to be in a lot of situations where he’ll have to drive in runs. The main thing with Nathan is I don’t want a lot of strikeouts in that spot. I want him putting the ball in play.”
The rest of the lineup is still to be determined. Hall said the Nos. 5-7 positions could include Coulter, Ethan Williamson and Rodney Preheim.
Houston returns four starters on the infield. McCarthy will catch and Cooperman will play first on days he doesn’t pitch. Smith moves from third base to shortstop. Poynter returns to second base and will play short on days Smith pitches.
Depending on who is pitching, Williamson will play first and second base. Coulter will start at third.
Freshmen Trevor Merckling and Austin Keeney will provide depth on the infield.
In the outfield, Preheim will start in right. Kodey Campbell, who has been cleared to bat but not throw following shoulder surgery, could start in center. Freshman Aaron Cantrell, who is battling an ankle injury and has also not been cleared, may start in left.
Freshman Quinton Alston and junior Elias Durbin will also be in the outfield mix.
Hall said the freshman class is one of the most talented and deepest he has had during his tenure.
“You can tell they feel comfortable out there,” Hall said. “They don’t look overwhelmed. They work really hard and because of that, they are going to make themselves good players.”
The Tigers will begin to get answers to many of the 2011 questions when the season opens Monday. Houston hosts Salem in the opening round of the SCA tournament. The semifinals will be Tuesday in Houston.
“These guys haven’t been battle tested in varsity games,” Hall said. “They are capable of doing it. There’s no doubt about it. But until they do it, you don’t know for sure.”
3/21 SCA Tournament
3/29 at Rolla
4/1 St. James
4/4 at Willow Springs
4/7 at Salem
4/9 Houston JV Tourn.
4/11 Mtn. Grove
4/15 Hartville Tourn.
4/25 at Ava
4/30 West Plains Tourn.
5/2 at Hartville
5/7 Rolla JV Tourn.
5/10 at Mansfield