He probably didn’t need to gather the troops in a half-circle in early March, given they were already aware of the challenging season that awaits. Still, coach Jim Julian had to.
You see, the Forsyth Panthers baseball team has a chance to do some damage again this spring, but they have to do go out and earn it without key standouts no longer on the roster.
“I told them at the beginning of the year we had a good year last year but this is 2016, not 2015. Each team has to create its own identity,” Julian said. “And in the fall, we accomplished a lot of our goals.”
Clearly, Forsyth should not lack motivation as the curtain soon rises on a new season.
For one, sitting in front of the senior class is the chance to become the winningest class in program history. It is 16 wins shy.
Besides, this year’s club is out to prove it can handle the graduation of six lettermen – five starters, including the top two arms in the pitching rotation – who led the charge to a 23-6 finish (14-0 in conference) and spot in a Class 3 district championship game.
Fortunately for Forysth, the outlook is hardly bleak. Among the seniors is Layn Hurst, an All-State selection who has committed to Mineral Area juco. He could fortify the starting rotation (after working in the shadows as the No. 3 starter) and will double as one of Forsyth’s key hitters.
“I look for him to have a pretty big year,” Julian said of Hurst, who was 5-2 with a 3.47 earned run average last year and earned all-district and first team all-conference. “If there was pressure, the pressure is off (after Hurst’s college choice.) And he has been a pretty good leader, being vocal with the young kids.”
Hurst is a 6-foot-2, 185-pound right-hander who takes over following the graduations of Southwest Baptist-signee Jay Kaufman and Austin Jasper. Hurst’s fastball, slider and splitter combination could be effective.
“I think Layn learned a lot just being behind those two guys,” Julian said. “He now is looking more like a pitcher than just a thrower.”
Senior Dylan Jordan, who has no varsity experience, and sophomore Caleb Terrell move into the Nos. 2 and 3 slots. Also look for Tyler Groves, Austin Padgett and Derek Grantham on the pitching staff.
“Jordan had a good fall on the mound,” Julian said. “He’s just a strike-thrower and pitches to contact. If he can keep on it, we can be pretty tough.”
Terrell’s funky delivery could factor well, too. He threw eight innings of a 13-inning game last fall.
“He’s got a funky motion, so he’s got some arm-side run on his two-seamer,” Julian said.
This year marks Julian’s seventh at Forsyth, where he is 216-67 overall. He won’t sugarcoat the fact that the team’s greatest challenge is overcoming inexperience.
However, the lineup might offer some calmness.
The lineup projects with leadoff man and senior Jett Schanda, followed by right fielder Nick Aumiller, Hurst, first baseman Padgett, left fielder Jordan, middle infielder Groves and Caleb Terrell, and then catcher Chris Cole and third baseman Casey Wallace.
The bench includes freshman Kaleb Ethridge, sophomore outfielder Cale Wallace, freshman Johnny Mayhew and sophomore Will Hitchcock. The roster includes three other freshmen in Jacob Burrow, Logan Reed and Brady Simmons.
Schanda obviously has the perfect name for a leadoff man and perhaps the skills to match. As you might assume, he covers a ton of ground in center field. He was first team all-district and first team all-conference after batting .306 with nine doubles and 14 stolen bases last year.
“His first step is just as quick as his fourth step,” Julian said. “On base, we’ve worked with him on recognizing balls in the dirt and trying to take advantage. In the outfield, he’s taking good angles. He’s got some pop and worked hard in the weight room.”
Hurst’s quick hands allow the bat to turn on many pitches, often sending them into the gap in right field. He hit .330 with eight doubles, four home runs and 35 RBI last year.
“He’s gotten a lot more patient, instead of getting himself out,” Julian said.
Padgett hit .432 last year, tops among returnees, and is drawing interest from Evangel University. He drove in 32 runs, hit five home runs and earned first team all-conference.
Jordan has worked himself into a starting spot, and Groves, another first team all-conference pick last year, hits for average and can handle the bat. Julian hopes the bottom of the order can show what it has shown in preseason – a knack for putting the ball in play.
Among them is Cole, who moves to catcher after handling the position last year on JV.
“He’s worked a lot on his footwork and throwing,” Julian said. “He’s also gotten a lot better with his accuracy. But sometimes he tries to do too much.”
Overall, it appears a balanced offense for Forsyth, which was 17-4 in the fall as the Panthers threw strikes and played solid defense. The challenge defensively is right up the middle, given the departure of last year’s catcher and pitchers.
“We’ve got to have some of the younger guys step up,” Julian said. “Fortunately our fall season was a huge plus for us. I just hope they can carry it over into the spring.”
March: 21-26 at Clever ROTB Tournament, 29 vs. Spokane
April: 5 at Clever, 9 vs. Fair Grove and Brookland, Ark., 11 at Reeds Spring, 14 vs. Crane, 15 vs. Billings, 19 vs. Blue Eye, 22 vs. Sparta, 23 vs. Parkview and Aurora, 25 vs. Hartville, 28 at Hollister, 29 vs. Central
May: 2 at Ava, 3 vs. Galena, 7-11 Forsyth Tournament, 14-18 at District Tournament in Fair Grove