By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
To say Skyline baseball enjoyed a successful 2019 campaign would be quite the understatement.
After replacing four starters from a 2018 squad that reached the Class 2 final four, the 21-8 Tigers reloaded for a second-straight trip, falling to eventual state champion Ellington.
For head coach Brett Bybee, the team’s growth and development during the season made its success all the more rewarding.
“Last season was a little more exciting than the year before,” Bybee said. “We had to replace about half our lineup last year with guys who had very little varsity experience. We knew we had the ability to be a really good team, we had to learn a lot of lessons throughout the season and we hit our stride at the right time.”
Now entering his eighth season at the helm, Bybee finds himself with an all-too-familiar task — replacing talented graduates — Infielder/pitcher Paden Hodges (.411 BA, 16 RBI, 3 SB, 2-0-1, 14 K, 0.93 ERA) and pitcher Trevor Russell (.340 BA, 17 RBI, 2 HR, 23 SB, 5-5, 94 K, 1.19 ERA).
Both Hodges and Russell were all-state selections in 2019.
“Both of these young men were the perfect combination of maturity/toughness and silliness/staying loose,” Bybee said. “Paden truly loved baseball and gave everything he had to respect the game. He put in many hours as a young player with the hopes of taking Skyline baseball to the final four, and he did it twice. Trevor was an outstanding talent who was so competitive it was sometimes scary. He not only would study his pitching craft but also would not hesitate to take a guy aside and help his teammate.”
Despite the loss of two prominent all-state talents, Skyline isn’t exactly looking for sympathy.
The Tigers still have three all-state selections on the roster in Dax Beem, Ty Pinon and Nick Williams.
Beem, a senior catcher, hit .338 for the Tigers with 16 RBIs and three stolen bases.
“Dax is a smart leader on the field that helps keep our pitchers’ minds right and runners where they need to stay,” Bybee said. “Last season, he hit extremely well for us in the middle of the lineup and drove in lots of runs for us — many in big situations.”
Pinon, a junior pitcher, hit .338 last season with 14 RBIs and seven stolen bases. On the mound, Pinion compiled a 7-1-2 record with 113 strikeouts and a 1.56 ERA.
“Ty a guy who has played a ton of baseball,” Bybee said. “He has the ability to drive the ball out of the yard and shut teams down from the mound.”
Williams, a senior outfielder, hit .301 last season with 12 RBIs and 5 stolen bases.
“Nick is a very smart consistent outfielder who hits in the middle of the lineup and finds ways to drive in runs,” Bybee said. “He made several big plays and had several big hits during our postseason run last year.”
Joining Beem on Skyline’s list of returning seniors are infielder/pitcher Gage Gunter and outfielder Travis Johnson.
“Gage was out all last season with an arm injury he sustained during football season,” Bybee said. “He is an outstanding middle infielder and pitcher. Travis is a good outfielder who loves to make the diving catch. He has a lot of power with his bat; if we can get a little more consistent at the plate, he will be a strong force to put the ball to the wall.”
Junior outfielder/pitcher Antonio Irizarry and sophomore outfielder Kaine Zentner round out Skyline’s returning players.
Tiger newcomers who could make an impact at the varsity level this season include Andrew Torbit, Dawson Pitts, Dawson Owen, Trooper Johnson, Clayton Gronniger, Trent Pinon, Brendan White and Jordan Long.
With both talent and experience on the roster, it’s easy to see why expectations are high for Skyline this season. With a number of similarities between this season’s group and the school’s final four squads, Bybee and assistant coach Gary Lile hope to shorten typical development challenges that can cause early-season struggles at times.
“We will attack the game in many of the same ways we have the past two years,” Bybee said. “Coach Lile and I have figured out some things that work for our kids in practice and in games that we will build upon. As a coach, I understand that we have to approach some teams differently than others but, luckily for us, the young men we have again this year have a lot of similarities to their older teammates, which makes it an easy transition to a new year.”
As for the season itself, Bybee remains focused on the team’s primary goal — another district title.
“Going to back-to-back final fours has been amazing but, once again, our goal will be a district title over all other goals,” Bybee said. “A great record or a conference title would be nice but playing in the postseason is always what we focus our season’s successes and failures on. how to learn from the season to put the best team on the field on district championship night.”
Skyline opens its season at home on Friday, March 20, against Macks Creek.