Falcons set to go with a lot of new faces

Out with the old, in with the new.

A batch of fresh talent will look to carry on the torch for the Blair Oaks’ baseball team after the Falcons graduated seven starters from last season’s 17-6 squad that lost in the district championship to eventual Class 3 state champion Fatima.

Blair Oaks doesn’t believe it is rebuilding, just reloading.

“I really don’t think we’ve changed our goals or expectations, we’re just going about it with some different personnel than we had last year,” Blair Oaks head coach Harv Antle said. “I think for us to expect anything less from these guys, that would be selling them short.”

Not exactly youthful, an inexperienced squad that boasts just five returning lettermen opens the 2014 season with a doubleheader against Camdenton and Eugene beginning at 1 p.m. today in Camdenton.

“It’s a little different this year starting on a Saturday, which is a little sooner than we’ve started before,” Antle said. “They’re excited about that, and I think that will show (today).”

With all the new faces, one concern rises above the rest for Antle.

“I think the biggest question mark for us going in is, how do you replace all the innings on the mound?” he said. “If you look at the total number of innings pitched last year, I think that seniors accounted for nearly 130 innings pitched. Not many innings pitched by underclassmen. That means you don’t have a lot of experience coming back on the mound, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have the ability. Some of those guys aren’t proven and they’re going to have to step up and eat up those innings and more.”

Junior Bryce Pritchett appears to be slotted for the No. 1 spot in the rotation. After that, players such as Collin Luebbering, Cody Stegemann, Shintaro Hatashima, Logan Gratz, Logan Bax, Alec Sieg and Clayton Graessle could all get their chances on the mound.

“There are a lot of guys. It’s just a matter of finding the right roles for those guys and letting them go out and fulfill those roles,” Antle said.

Things are just as unsettled in the batting order. With just four players back that saw regular time last season — Hayden Haney, Gratz, Bax and Seth Eskens — spots are there for the taking.

“After that you’re having guys with ability but maybe not the varsity experience,” Antle said. “They’re going to be fighting for time.

“There are parts there, we just have to find the right place for them. We have to sort the puzzle out and get the pieces in the right place so that we can have the complete picture at the end.”

The defensive alignment picture is a little clearer.

The tentative starting lineup includes: Gratz at first; Eskens at second; Stegemann at shortstop; a three-way battle for third with James Reinkemeyer as the favorite along with Dylan Hoelscher and Jacob Wilbers; Ryan Wilbers and Brent Heckemeyer at the corner outfield spots and Haney in center. Bax will spend most of his time behind the plate, while Dalton Fifer will earn backup duties. Alec Verhoff will also see time in the outfield.

“We feel our strength will be up the middle defensively,” Antle said.

“We feel like we’re two or three deep at every position. There’s going to be competition defensively, they’ll be competition on the mound, competition in the lineup. We think that’s going to make us better. Once those guys figure out their roles and buy in to the team concept and everybody’s pulling in the same direction, I think the potential is unlimited for those guys.”

The goals remain the same for Blair Oaks. First comes the Tri-County Conference title for the defending champs, then a district title before going on to the state bracket.

“The setup is similar to last year, both in the conference and at the district level and then the state tournament,” Antle said. “It’s set up well. Everyone thought that whoever got out of our district last year was going to have a good opportunity to make a deep run, and that’s exactly what happened. Unfortunately we weren’t the team that got out of the district.

“District will be very similar this year. It will be tough, it will be a competitive district. But if you get out, I think that’s the hardest part. I’ve maintained that for years, hardest thing to do is win a district. … The way the brackets are set up at this point, the team out of our district has as good a chance as anybody.”

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