The start of a new sports season is a place to start from the ground up. Few have starting positions. No one has a losing record, and everyone is a contender. Graduation gobbles up the a majority of the experience and leadership on any team, so others push forward in hopes of making a name for themselves, after waiting in the wings on junior varsity or on the bench.
Indian River’s varsity baseball team finds itself in that very predicament coming off a 15-6 regular-season record and a state tournament appearance. Jerry Meiklejohn and Cody Jensen vacated their corner outfield positions. First basemen Matt Lewis and catcher D.J. Clark are gone, too, which leaves a state championship contender looking for a new identity.
The four seniors accounted for 33 percent of the teams’ home runs (9) and 42 percent of the RBI’s (64) and held a staggering .372 batting average. They won’t be easy to replace.
Bryan Lynch served as last year’s third baseman, designated hitter and backup catcher but steps into the starting catcher position with the departure of Clark. Lynch was second on the team in homeruns (6) but Head Coach Howard Smack has full confidence in his ability to lead with his bat and defensive abilities.
“It’s time for him to take control of the pitchers,” Smack said. “We need him to take the bull by the horns. He’s a very intelligent player and a competitor. He’ll find a way to get the job done. He’ll work it instead of letting it work him.”
Lynch tossed out one of two runners stealing second base, blocked the plate and positioned himself well to receive pitches, but it was his ability to wait on the curveball that impressed Smack the most.
“The one thing I saw Bryan do that he didn’t do last year is wait on the curveball. When (hitting and defense) come together he’ll be dangerous,” he said.
Freshman Luis Barrientos made a varsity impression by hitting two homeruns in the leadoff spot — the first on a full count and the other on a first-pitch fastball in a scrimmage against Stephen Decatur on March 14.
“As a freshman he’s a better hitter than me and I’ve been hitting a long time,” marveled pitcher Colin Warner. “He’s an all-natural.”
“Stephen Decatur’s pitcher looked as good as anyone in the conference,” Smack said. “Their coach told me that they tried to pitch him inside and outside, but Luis handled him.”
Barrientos played shortstop for a myriad of travel teams in the past but will play third base along side senior shortstop Josh Dean.
Junior second baseman Thomas Veith also hit a homerun against Stephen Decatur and will return to second base.
Junior Mike Casale looks to be the front-runner for the first-base position after belting a couple of base hits against Stephen Decatur, though his lack of mobility may be a defensive liability. And Lewis held a .974 fielding average and ranked second on the team in put-outs (108) while committing only three errors.
Senior centerfielder Matt Williamson is the lone returning starter in the outfield with the departure of Jensen and Meiklejohn. That will increase his responsibilities, according to Smack.
“Before the game he (Williamson) and I were joking, and he said, ‘You’re missing your general out there,’” Smack said. “He’s going to have to direct them out there.”
Smack noted that a number of last year’s JV players will compete for the corner outfielder positions.
The strength of the Indians team will, no doubt, be its pitching. Colin Warner (5-2) returns as his team’s top pitcher and sophomore Trevor Abbott is filling Jensen’s No. 2 slot.
Jensen (6-2) started nine games and pitched 43 innings, compared to Abbott’s four innings pitched. But much has changed since then.
Abbott participated a bunch of off-season camps and the results yielded Post 28’s No. 2 winning pitcher, with a 4-0 record and a second-ranked team-ERA (2.47), which is encouraging to Smack and his teammates.
“Trevor has stepped it up big-time,” Smack said. “He faced some good batters and was very impressive. He’s a gamer.”
Abbott tossed three 1-2-3 shutout innings and struck out seven batters, including the side in the bottom of the sixth. Four of his strikeouts were on called strikes.
“He’s definitely more confident this year,” commented Warner. “Last year, he was on JV and played varsity, but this year he knows he’s a varsity player.”
Casale is slated as the team’s No. 3 starter, and Kmetz is their closer.
Indian River will scrimmage two opponents at its home field on March 17.