The first freshman class in Kettle Run’s short history proved to be prosperous.
Replacing it could be problematic.
The Cougars lost seven senior starters to graduation following last baseball season, a group that helped build the team into an annual region tournament qualifier since an inaugural 2009 season.
Kettle Run won the Evergreen District regular season championship in 2012 and finished with a 15-3 record after losing in the Region II quarterfinals. In 2011, they lost in the region semifinals after winning the district regular season and tournament titles, and they also advanced to the region semis in 2010.
Now, a largely new crop of Cougars will try to continue that tradition.
“They know what the expectations are,” Kettle Run coach Ty Thorpe said. “Everybody's talking that we've got a lot of holes to fill, and they're right, but it's almost like we have that underdog mentality.”
He said the Cougars’ goal of winning the Evergreen title for a third consecutive season is realistic.
“They want to show we are still a solid program,” Thorpe said. “I still have a lot of talent – a lot of young talent – and that's good for the future.”
Marc Henry and Donnie Forgacs will likely determine much of Kettle Run’s success in 2013.
As the Cougars’ only returning starters, those seniors will compose the top of Kettle Run’s pitching rotation, the top of its batting order and the critical middle infield.
“They've got the most varsity at bats, so I'm hoping they have real good seasons,” Thorpe said.
Henry will be Kettle Run’s leadoff hitter, a spot from which he produced a .311 batting average and 12 RBI last season. He’ll also play shortstop and second base when not pitching, while Forgacs will head the pitching staff and play shortstop when not on the mound.
Forgacs hit .333 last season with 11 RBI, finishing the season in the No. 2 spot of the lineup after hitting lower early on.
“Marc was our table-setter,” Thorpe said. “He's gets on base and has good speed so he can steal a couple bases. … Donnie, he came up with some clutch hits.”
However, Kettle Run lost the heart of its 2012 batting order. Gone are No. 3 Kyle Reinaldo (third base), No. 4 David Stuart (catcher), No. 5 Connor Adams (pitcher/left field) and No. 6 Mac Graham (center field/pitcher), as well as Riley DeBorde (first base), Luke Palese (shortstop) and Josh Leonard (right field).
The Cougars finished 2012 with their best winning percentage in history (.833) and went undefeated in Evergreen District play (8-0) for the first time.
“We're trying to find kids to just fill those roles,” Thorpe said. “Kids that can be effective.”
So far that’s been hard to do. Not due to lack of talent, but due to lack of opportunity. The Cougars only practiced with full use of their field three days during the first few weeks.
“It keeps freezing and thawing, so you can't do anything with the [infield] dirt,” Thorpe said.
In turn, Thorpe hasn’t been able to do much with his lineup card.
“I'm going to roll the dice for the first game, which I'm not accustomed to doing,” he said of the Cougars’ game scheduled for Tuesday against Robinson. “It's been so frustrating because you write [a lineup] on paper and you look at it and look at it and say, ‘Ah, I don't know.’”
“So far it's been tough to get a read on who can do what,” he said. “But I'm excited. … I liked what I saw in my pitchers and what I saw out of my defense” during a scrimmage against Eastern View.
Kettle Run does have a handful of varsity letter-winners from last season as well as newcomers like freshman Brian Reinaldo, younger brother of past Kettle Run staples Justin and Kyle. He will play second base and hit second in the order, while seniors like Jack Briles (first base) and Matt Tingle (outfield) will likely fill the middle of the order and try to drive in Henry, Reinaldo and Forgacs.
“I'm expecting big things out of Jack,” Thorpe said, “and Matt Tingle is going to have to help us offensively.”
“We've been lucky in the past to get some timely hits,” he said. “It's just a matter of getting the timing down. That's been tough because we've only seen live pitching two times.”
Pitching and defense have always been strengths for Kettle Run and Thorpe expects nothing different this season. Forgacs returns to the mound after going 3-1 last season with a 1.34 ERA and 22 strikeouts, but the Cougars lost a bundle of solid pitchers, including Adams, Cody Pierce, Palese and Graham.
Juniors Bailey Moneymaker, Joey Cloud and Rollin Buffington will try to help fill those voids.
/ On Twitter @jeffmalmgren.