In his fifth season as head coach, Steve Birchard has his most experienced squad with some high hopes for the 2013 campaign.
A year ago, his players cashed in on a bet that he would have to shave off his longstanding mustache if the team had a winning record after 15 games. Out came the shears when a sweep of Lewis Central made the record 8-7.
Playing .500 ball isn’t what this veteran crew wants to do, he said Thursday as the team prepared for the season opener Monday at Corning.
“The guys already said, it’s going to take a lot more to have my mustache this year,” Birchard said. “We’re talking (winning) conference, or going to the state tournament. There is some tough competition at the top of the Hawkeye 10, and we want to break into that top three. Our goal is to win it.”
Just two years ago, Creston was 5-24 with a 4-14 league mark.
The only senior starter on last year’s 14-15 team (9-9 conference, sixth place) was outfielder-pitcher Ben Landers. But it’s a key loss, as Landers, now playing soccer at Graceland University, had a .318 batting average as the leadoff batter, and was the pitching leader with a 2.77 earned run average.
Landers was named to the first all-conference team at a utility position.
Two other lettermen opted not to play this season, including starting left fielder Jay Wolfe.
So, the outfield is the only place that the lineup will have a new look in 2013. Birchard said juniors Garret Taylor and Trey Benson are contending for time in left, and junior Cole Crawford assumes full-time duty in center when not pitching. He earned all-conference honorable mention last year.
Freshman Chris Foster can provide depth at either outfield or infield, the Panther coach said.
Junior Trevor Luther returns in right field and joins an experienced pitching staff of junior Nathan Haley, senior Keaton Hulett and junior Brandon Phipps. Junior Jon Birchard and Benson can provide depth on the mound. Haley earned second team all-conference and all-district honors last year.
“We have decent pitching, I think,” Birchard said. “I’ve always been impressed with how Glenwood keeps throwing guys out there with good velocity. Now, while we don’t have anyone that blows you away, we have a group of guys who can bring it pretty well.”
The Panther coach, helped by second-year assistant Kyle Wilson and new freshman coach Anthony Donahoo, said he’s emphasizing more consistent control from his mound corps.
“Someone once said that for every batter, after three pitches, the ball should either be in play, or you’re ahead in the count,” Birchard said. “I like that philosophy. Strike one is the most important pitch. You have to trust that we can field the majority of our chances.”
Carroll Kuemper Catholic, a Class 2A semifinalist last season, and Glenwood appear to be the teams to beat in the Hawkeye 10, Birchard said. Harlan topped Glenwood last year to reach the tournament, and returns part of that lineup.
“If we can take care of the teams we should, and split with the tough teams, then you have a shot,” Birchard said.
Three seniors return to the infield. They are catcher Zach Powers, Hulett at first base and three-year shortstop Briar Evans, who batted .472 in 11 games after being ineligible for a month.
Conner Pals is back at second, spelled by Jon Birchard while Pals finishes the soccer season. Phipps and Haley return at third.
“The nice thing is we can mix and match guys who pitch and play the same positions,” Birchard said.
Eighth-grader Chase Shiltz is a utility player with the capability of helping in the infield or a backup to Powers at catcher, Birchard noted. Freshman Kyle Wynn is also working at catcher.
After playing at Corning and Indianola Monday and Tuesday, the Panthers open at home Thursday in their new-look ballpark. Renovation from last year’s tornado includes a brick backstop, new sidewalks lining the bleachers, and a press box/storage shed under construction. New fencing should be completed by Tuesday.
“It was fortunate that we could play at SWCC last year,” Birchard said, “but I know the early starts made it tough on some people.”
JV and varsity games were played at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. last year since SWCC does not have lights at its field.
(* — letterwinner)
Seniors — *Keaton Hulett (1B-P), Briar Evans (IF-P), *Zach Powers (C).
Juniors — *Cole Crawford (OF-1B-P), *Brandon Phipps (IF-P), *Trevor Luther (OF-P), *Nathan Haley (IF-P), Jon Birchard (IF-P), *Garret Taylor (OF), Trey Benson (OF-P).
Sophomores — *Conner Pals (IF).
Freshmen — Chris Foster (IF-C-P), Kole Lovely (P-SS-OF), Zach Smith (P-3B), Kyle Wynn (C-OF), Brandon Lee.
Eighth graders — Tyler Downey, Dalton O’Riley, Kendrick Davis, Patrick Normandeau, Tyler Peters, Quinton Scadden, Tom Steinbach, Cody Crawford, Brenden McDowell, Gavin Woods, Will Gordon, Brody Frain, Trevor Marlin, Colton Bolinger, Kadon Hulett, Chase Shiltz, Cody Tanner.
May 20 — at Corning, 7:45 p.m.
May 21 — at Indianola, 7:45 p.m.
May 23 — vs. Nodaway Valley, 7:45 p.m.
May 28 — at Lewis Central (DH), 5:30 p.m.
May 30 — vs. Shenandoah, 7:45 p.m.
May 31 — at Norwalk, 3:15 p.m.
June 4 — at Harlan (DH), 5:30 p.m.
June 5 — at Southeast Polk, 7 p.m.
June 6 — at Red Oak, 7:45 p.m.
June 10 — vs. Clarinda, 7:45 p.m.
June 11 — vs. Kuemper Catholic (DH), 5:30 p.m.
June 17 — at Shenandoah, 7:45 p.m.
June 18 — at Denison-Schleswig (DH), 5:30 p.m.
June 21 — vs. Osceola Clarke, 7:45 p.m.
June 24 — vs. Red Oak, 7:45 p.m.
June 25 — vs. Atlantic (DH), 5:30 p.m.
June 27 — at Clarinda, 7:45 p.m.
June 29 — vs. Council Bluffs St. Albert, 7:45 p.m.
July 3 — vs. Treynor, 7:45 p.m.
July 5 — vs. Shenandoah, 7:45 p.m.
July 8 — at Martensdale-St. Marys, 7:45 p.m.
July 9 — vs. Chariton, 7:45 p.m.
July 12 — at Winterset, 7:45 p.m.
July 15 — at ADM (Adel), 7:45 p.m.
July 16 — at Chariton, 6 p.m.