By Kary Booher (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
While the Billings High School baseball team looks as if it will have a number of pitchers, one thing is certain. No one has seized on the role of No. 1.
But consider that a good thing. For competition.
“I like to say we have three No. 2s,” Billings coach Drew Cherry said. “So that spot for ace is kind of up for grabs.”
Having laser-focused pitchers will be important for Billings, which has a few pieces that could help the Wildcats improve from last season’s 6-11 finish overall and third-place showing in the SouthWest Central League (SWCL).
Even better, the fall season left Cherry optimistic about the road ahead.
And leading that road will be pitchers Luke Johnson, Duncan Harter and Trent Blankenship.
Johnson, a senior, was an honorable mention All-SWCL selection last year and has proven to be one of the top talents on the team. He hit .390 with 16 runs scored and 10 RBI last year. On the mound, he was 4-2 with a 2.89 earned run average, with 31 strikeouts in 29 innings.
“You can put him anywhere,” Cherry said. “He doesn’t have the overpowering speed, but he’ll hit his spots. He’s just consistent, and he gets decent bite on his curveball.”
Blankenship is a presence on the mound, what with a 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame. He hit .275 with 13 hits, including three home runs, and 14 RBI. He also was 1-4 with a 4.82 ERA. He had 24 strikeouts in 22 1/3 innings pitched.
“He’s got a lot of power on his arm and his bat,” Cherry said. “Last year, he walked a lot of guys, but there was improvement in the fall. He had four or five starts where he threw five innings. So he definitely improved. He’s worked pretty hard, too, (to get ready for the season.)”
Harter did not pitch last spring but got some innings on the mound in the fall.
Meanwhile, the lineup likely will have Johnson leading off, with catcher Peyton Gold batting third. He hit .260 with 13 hits, including three doubles, and had 10 runs scored and 11 RBI.
“Johnson probably has the most speed on the team,” Cherry said. “Last spring, every ball he hit was hard. And he gives us an opportunity to score a lot of runs.
“Gold has a lot of power and, for a catcher, is one of the fastest guys on the team,” Cherry added.
Billings has a number of others that Cherry can move up or down the lineup, including freshman Brian Terry, Blankenship, Harter and Tanner Gordon. Hit had seven hits last year.
“(Terry) hit close to .400 in the fall. He came out of nowhere,” Cherry said. “He hits a lot of line drives, and I can see him moving up to that No. 2 spot. Trent, he’s got some power. As a freshman last spring, he hit three home runs and one in the fall. And he can hit into the gaps. Duncan hits for contact.”
Other notables include sophomores Jacob Parcell, Connor Henderson and freshmen Hayden Fender, Brian Terry and Jake Henry.
Harter could play shortstop, first or outfield. Blankenship could move from third to outfield. Johnson can man center field when not pitching, but Parcell could handle center as well.
“He’s still developing,” Cherry said of Parcell. “Anything hit his way, he tracks down. And he doesn’t mind diving. I need a guy like him on our team.”
Henderson’s baseball IQ – particularly on knowing to throw to the cut-off man – could keep him in the everyday lineup. Fender is a 6-5 freshman who showed some pop last fall, when Terry showed some encouraging signs.
Henry has played shortstop and third base and could see time on the mound.
Overall, it’s a team that will have to come together knowing it graduated Wyatt Gold, Aiden Harter, Wyatt Wilson and Luke Dawson. They were All-SWCL last year.
“At the end of last season, we were playing pretty good baseball,” Cherry said. “So there were a lot of guys coming in in the mornings working their tails off this winter. I definitely see it carrying over the spring.”