Houston Tigers baseball coach Brent Hall says his 2012 team is physically gifted. It’s a matter of how the team handles the mental approach that will determine success or failure, he says.
This season is a pivotal one for the HHS baseball program. Hall enters his 15th season with the Tigers with a first –– taking the field following a losing campaign.
Houston struggled down the stretch of 2011 and finished with a below .500 record for the first time in Hall’s tenure. With a sophomore-dominant lineup and many new faces on the team, Hall said time will tell if this year’s version plays to its potential and restores the program’s winning tradition.
“They’re capable. From the shoulders down, they have everything it takes to win,” Hall said. “But baseball is predominantly mental. It’s what we do from the shoulders up that will determine how we perform.”
The young Tigers will be led by senior Ethan Williamson, a versatile player who returns after earning second team all-conference honors. He is joined by returning starters Rodney Preheim, Devin Coulter, Aaron Cantrell and Quinton Alston.
Potentially five sophomores could start. Coulter –– named honorable mention all-conference last year –– along with Alston and Cantrell all saw significant time as freshmen. Austin Keeney and Trevor Merckling are projected to be first-time starters.
With freshman Tanner Cantrell slated to start at first base, six of the Tigers’ nine starters are underclassmen.
Although the team is young, Hall said he has been pleased with their approach in the preseason. He said the players have better chemistry than those of the past several years.
“I haven’t had one complaint with these kids since the first day of practice,” he said. “When they’re on the baseball field for practice, that’s what they are doing. They don’t jack around and do other things. I’ve been really impressed.”
Williamson will anchor the offense by moving from the No. 2 slot to third. He hit .306 last year with 15 runs and 11 RBIs.
Alston, who will bat right-handed in varsity games and left-handed during JV contests as he works toward becoming a switch hitter, inherits the leadoff spot of all-conference selection Lucas Cooperman. Coulter, who hit .275 while leading the team in RBIs (19) and steals (14), will bat second.
Preheim will hit fourth, followed by Tanner Cantrell, Aaron Cantrell and senior Kodey Campbell. Keeney and Merckling will complete the lineup.
Hall expects offensive production could decline with the enforcement of a new MSHSAA rule that changed the type of bats high school players can use. Hall said they have less pop.
“You’ll be able to tell by the way they sound,” he said. “They are basically like a wood bat that’s metal.”
Houston will counter with a different style of play.
“I think we’ll be a good ‘small ball’ team –– and that’s how we’ll have to play,” Hall said. “We have decent team speed, so we’ll try to put pressure on the defense by running a lot.”
Defensively, the Tigers will have new faces at every position. Coulter moves from third base to shortstop and Williamson slides from second to third. Keeney (catcher), Tanner Cantrell (first) and Merckling (second) are first-time starters.
Aaron Cantrell and Campbell will split duties in center. They will be flanked by Alston in left and Preheim in right.
Chance Gale and Drake Bell could also figure into the outfield mix. Kaden Miller is the back-up catcher.
Aaron Cantrell and Coulter will lead an inexperienced pitching staff.
Cantrell, who Hall described as a “power pitcher,” had a 2.19 ERA in 16 innings last year. Only he and Merckling, who threw one inning as a freshman, have pitched in a varsity game.
Hall said Coulter is more of a finesse pitcher with good location. Merckling will also be part of the staff and Williamson, who Hall discovered during the 50-inning game was a capable pitcher, could be asked to log a few innings.
Campbell, who is battling a lingering arm issue from last year, may be part of the staff as well.
Hall hopes a year of experience for his younger players will translate into a winning season.
“Nobody is perceived as the frontrunner in the conference or district. It’s wide open,” he said. “Realistically, I think we should win our fair share of ballgames.”