Steve Birchard sees this as a threshold year for Creston baseball.
It’s time to take that step he’s been talking about since taking over as head coach six years ago, succeeding longtime SWCC coach Bill Krejci.
Krejci guided the Panthers to the state tournament in 2007. But the Panthers haven’t contended for a conference crown or state tourney appearance since then. With seven seniors who have “grown up” in Birchard’s program, he sees 2014 as the year to deliver the goods.
“It’s nice to have seven seniors coming back, guys who have bought into this program all along,” Birchard said Wednesday as his team prepared for the opener at home Monday against Southwest Valley, the new program combining Corning and Villisca.
“At this point, this is when we need to step it up and start playing to the level we think we should be at,” Birchard added. “I think we should be contending for our league title. We need to be at that level. We just haven’t been there yet. We were fifth last year.”
The Panthers were on track at mid-season in 2013, but dropped their last nine games to finish 12-18, and 9-9 in the Hawkeye 10 behind Carroll Kuemper Catholic, Glenwood, Harlan and Lewis Central.
Kuemper and Harlan qualified for state, with the Cyclones knocking off Glenwood for a berth in Class 3A.
Three pillars of Birchard’s program graduated last year in shortstop Briar Evans, first baseman-pitcher Keaton Hulett and four-year catcher Zach Powers. Powers was the team’s leading hitter at .521, Hulett drove in a team-high 27 runs and Evans led the team in stolen bases and doubles. Hulett and Evans hit above .300.
All three seniors in 2013 were named to the all-conference second team.
Cole Crawford, center fielder and lefthanded starting pitcher, earned first-team all-league honors a year ago and is among the seven seniors in 2014. Others are Nathan Haley, Trevor Luther, Brandon Phipps, Garret Taylor, Jon Birchard and Trey Benson.
With so many of them planning collegiate participation in other sports, Birchard said it’s a positive sign that they held together for their senior baseball campaign. Phipps will be on a track-cross country scholarship at Northwest Missouri State, Haley has signed to play football at Graceland University, Benton plans to play football at Iowa State as a walk-on and Taylor is considering collegiate tennis.
They join the likes of Luther, Crawford and Birchard who have focused on baseball as their primary sport, along with returning junior Conner Pals in the infield.
“We’re fortunate to have that many seniors,” Birchard said. “All you have to do is look at next year, and see that we’ll have one. Then zero in the sophomore class. But our freshman class is very capable and it’s nice to have 15 of them with us.”
All three first-team all-conference pitchers from last year — Kuemper’s Chris Halbur, Glenwood’s Justin Fischer and Harlan’s David Ratigan — graduated. Second-teamers back are Harlan senior Nick Kaufman and Glenwood junior Wyatt Schulz. But overall, there are fewer dominant pitchers in the league, leaving the door open for a breakthrough.
“I was talking with (Harlan coach) Steve Deages the other day, and we both don’t feel like anybody is going to throw out that guy that you feel you are not able to beat,” Birchard said. “You have to go out and hit and play defense. And throw strikes. That’s been a point of emphasis for us.”
Powers, Evans and Hulett were the heart of the Panther batting order last year, so some current Panthers are going to be called on to deliver in more crucial roles.
One of the hardest hitters in preseason practices has been Luther, the team’s mainstay in right field. He hit .396 last year with seven extra-base hits. Likewise, Haley is a power hitter coming off a season with a team-high three home runs and 17 RBIs while hitting .323.
From the left side, Crawford was a skilled batsman with a .314 average and 26 runs scored. Phipps will likely move up in the order this year and could utilize his speed on the bases. Likewise, Pals could spark the top of the order after batting nearly .300 in an injury-shortened campaign.
Pals and Benson were injured in the June football camp at Northwest Missouri State. Benson missed the remainder of the season with a broken thumb after sharing left field with Taylor in the early going. Pals was out from June 8 to July 2 with a shoulder injury.
Crawford had the best pitching statistics last year. He was 3-1 with a 2.75 ERA in 43 innings. Phipps pitched 44 innings at 3-6 and 5.68 ERA. Haley was 3-4 with a 7.00 ERA in 35 innings.
Hulett was the other primary starter, with nine decisions, so Birchard will look to fill that spot from the likes of Luther (the team’s hardest thrower), seniors Benson and Birchard, and freshmen Kadon Hulett and Chase Schiltz, who got some varsity duty as eighth-graders. Freshman infielder Brody Frain is also working at pitcher.
“We don’t have guys who are going to blow you away with velocity,” Birchard said. “We just need to throw strikes and play defense.”
With Powers gone, a lot of shared duty could come into play at catcher. Schiltz, Kadon Hulett and eighth-grader Jaden Driskell are the leading contenders. With both Schiltz and Hulett needed at pitcher and other positions, nobody will be be a fixture behind the plate like Powers was.
Likewise, the combination of Haley, Crawford and Kadon Hulett will succeed Keaton Hulett at first base. Pals, still involved in soccer, should eventually settle back into the second base job, while also filling in at shortstop at times, especially if Phipps is pitching. Frain can also work at second and short, having filled in at second last year during Pals’ injury.
Taylor, currently slowed by a back injury and qualification for state tennis May 31, and Benson return with experience in left field. Crawford and his brother, freshman Cody Crawford, are center fielders and Luther is back in right. Cody Crawford and freshman Gavin Woods can fill in when one of the outfielders is pitching.
Due to job conflicts, Kyle Wilson was unable to return as varsity assistant and JV coach. Another former Panther of more recent vintage, Ben Landers, fills that role this year. Anthony Donahoo returns as freshman coach.
Landers was an all-conference center fielder and pitcher as a 2012 senior for Birchard. He now plays soccer as a Graceland University student.
“Ben is picking it up really well,” Birchard said. “He’s starting to get more comfortable in giving direction. He’ll be a nice addition.”
The Panthers play three games next week, hosting Indianola Tuesday after Monday’s opener before traveling to Greenfield Thursday to take on Nodaway Valley. The conference opener is a tough one, at Glenwood June 2.
* — Letterwinner
Seniors — *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).
Juniors — *Conner Pals (IF).
Sophomores — None.
Freshmen — Tyler Downey (P-SS), Dalton O’Riley (OF), Kendrick Davis (SS-OF), Deaven Reese, Cody Crawford (P-OF), Brenden McDowell (P-SS-2B), Gavin Woods (C-OF), Will Gordon (1B-3B), *Brody Frain (IF), Trevor Marlin (OF), Kadon Hulett (P-IF), *Chase Schiltz (P-C-IF), Cody Tanner (1B), Matt Hoffman (OF-3B), Ian Burns.
Eighth grade — Garret Dahl (OF), Mason Kinsella (3B), Kolby Tomas (C-3B), Cole Higgins (SS-OF), Kelby Luther (OF-MI), Royce Bernard (OF), Cody Wagner (OF), Cory Marquardt (IF), Tucker Flynn (1B-P), Dylan Linch (2B-OF), Dylan Anson (2B), Ethan Anderson (2B-OF), Ben Bargstadt (OF-2B), Jaden Driskell (C-P-IF), Dustin Merritt (IF-P).
Coaches — Steve Birchard, head coach; Ben Landers, varsity assistant/JV; Anthony Donahoo, freshman coach.
May 26 — vs. Southwest Valley, 7:30 p.m.
May 27 — vs. Indianola, 7:30 p.m.
May 29 — at Nodaway Valley, 7:30 p.m.
June 2 — at Glenwood, 7:30 p.m.
June 3 — vs. Clarinda, 7:30 p.m.
June 5 — vs. Harlan, 5:30 & 7:30 p.m.
June 9 — at Shenandoah, 7:30 p.m.
June 11 — vs. Southeast Polk, 7:30 p.m.
June 12 — at Carroll Kuemper Catholic, 5:30 & 7:30 p.m.
June 13 — vs. Atlantic, 7:30 p.m.
June 16 — vs. Red Oak, 7:30 p.m.
June 17 — vs. Glenwood, 7:30 p.m.
June 19 — at Denison-Schleswig, 5:30 & 7:30 p.m.
June 23 — at Clarinda, 7:30 p.m.
June 24 — vs. Shenandoah, 7:30 p.m.
June 26 — vs. Council Bluffs St. Albert, 5:30 & 7:30 p.m.
June 27 — at Osceola Clarke, 7:30 p.m.
June 30 — vs. Martensdale-St. Marys, 7:30 p.m.
July 1 — at Red Oak, 7:30 p.m.
July 3 — at Atlantic, 7:30 p.m.
July 8 — vs. Winterset, 7:30 p.m.
July 10 — vs. Lewis Central, 5:30 & 7:30 p.m.
July 14 — vs. Adel-DeSoto-Minburn, 7:30 p.m.
July 15 — vs. Chariton, 7:30 p.m.
July 18 — District opener