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BASEBALL PREVIEW: Cougars are defending champs, Falcons feature pitching, Eagles are young

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STAFF PHOTO/COY FERRELL

Fauquier's John Bynaker will lead off for the Falcons, play center field and also pitch. Coaches say this will be a challenging season given the lack of practice and the shortness of the 12-game schedule.

Baseball is a complex game of repetition and timing. It requires dedication, training and experience, and when playing gets disrupted, the game becomes more difficult.

Due to the pandemic that canceled the 2020 season and delayed this one, local coaches say their teams will be work in progress.

“The hardest thing is the short amount of time. There’s been no scrimmages. We’ve got some people out of whack and their timing is way off,” said Kettle Run coach Ty Thorpe.

“We’re restarting the culture of how we play baseball,” said Fauquier coach Matt O’Saban.

Practice began April 12, with games beginning this week. There have been no scrimmages, some players have been in quarantine. Others are getting sore arms. 

Teams are playing up to 12 games with the regular season ending May 28. Fauquier, Liberty, Kettle Run and Culpeper play each other twice, and meet Sherando, Handley, James Wood and Millbrook once.

The district tournament begins June 3.

KETTLE RUN

Coach Ty Thorpe’s successful Cougar baseball program returns as the defending Northwestern District  tournament champions, yet the coach has never had more uncertainty.

Thorpe believes he has a pretty good pitching rotation, but he has no clue to the batting order or some infield spots.

Junior right-hander Harrison Yergey was expected to pitch Tuesday’s season-opener vs. Handley, with sophomore Zach Gimon, senior Colin Palmer, senior Dan Dispanet and junior Kyle Ellis filling out the other primary pitching slots. “Those are the five guys we’ll lean on the most,” said Thorpe.

Yergey loomed as a key player last year, while the left-handed Dispanet was an important relief pitcher in 2019 when the Cougars made the Class 4 state quarterfinals. Palmer is headed to Mary Washington University to pitch and play first base. Yergey, Palmer and Gimon have played travel baseball, which has helped their preparation.

Junior catcher Jake Ascari gives the Cougars another player with previous experience.

Aside from that, Thorpe has myriad concerns.

“I don’t have a starting nine, it’s not clear right now,” he said. “It’s gonna be feeling things out in the beginning. The goal is to make regionals and continue from there. It’s gonna have to be a cliche ‘one game-at-a-time’ thing. Anybody can get anybody this year.

Thorpe says some of his players have sore arms, and he has not gone over some key strategic fundamentals due to the brief practice time. 

“Most of the questions lie with the offense, who pushes runs across. For me it’s more about who can play and who is game-ready. We have to get the rust off in a short amount of time,” said Thorpe.

FAUQUIER

Fauquier coach Matt O’Saban has 23 players between his varsity and JV and is treating it like a giant taxi squad, with players available to come and go.

“We think we can be pretty good on the mound. Can we score runs? Will we field cleanly for seven innings? Those answers will come when we start playing games,” said O’Saban.

John Bynaker will be the starting center fielder and bat leadoff. “He’s our best athlete overall and has the most speed,” said O’Saban. Bynaker is a lefthander who will also pitch.

Sophomore Braedy Peck is emerging as a potential top pitcher. “He’s long and lean and throws it easy,” said O’Saban, who said Peck will bat second and play first or second base when not pitching.

O’Saban said his pitchers are talented but unproven, so it’s hard to tell how the rotation will work out. “We have three or four that are pretty close, but they’re all young, all big, long and lanky.”

Owen Winebarger is another sophomore lefthander expected to blossom. “He’s got really good command and is starting to develop velocity,” O’Saban said.

Junior Blaine Smith will anchor the lineup as a right-handed pitcher, corner infielder and No. 4 hitter. The 6-foot-4 Smith was scheduled to start Tuesday’s season-opener against Liberty. “He has not been pitching that long,” said O’Saban. “We put a baseball in his hand his freshman year and he’s come a long way very quickly.”

Ethan Brown is another sophomore that could emerge as a stopper. Brown is 6-foot-3 with a good fastball. “Of all our starters any of Peck, Smith, Winebarger or Brown could be a No. 1 or 2,” said O’Saban. “Ethan is naturally strong, the ball jumps out of his hand.”

Fauquier is breaking in sophomore Damen Tapscott at shortstop. “We think it’ll be his job the next three years,” said O’Saban.

Senior Nick Rogers will be the catcher. Rogers approached O’Saban about taking a position that needed filling. “He works his butt off. He saw a void that could hurt the team and he jumped in,” said O’Saban.

Garrett Hoffman-Cockerille will play some outfield and third base.

LIBERTY

The canceled 2020 season was particularly tough on the Eagles. 

After going 7-14 in 2019, Liberty had a strong senior class that never got a chance to have the best season in recent memory. “I felt like last year we could compete for the district championship,” said coach Tom Determan.

The 2021 Eagles have a solid nucleus, plus a lot of unknowns.

Four-year varsity starter Sammy Leach will pitch and play shortstop.  “If I only have one returning senior, but Sammy’s a good one to have. He’s a great leader and hard worker,” said Determan.

Junior Jacob Laws is projected as the No. 1 pitcher and will play shortstop when Leach is pitching. Laws got some varsity experience as a freshman.

Junior Johnathan Embry will catch, play outfield and pitch. “He’s a good hitter. He’s a football player who got some carries in the Bird Bowl and will hit in the middle of the lineup,” said Determan.

Junior Hunter Edwards will play center field. Braden Conner is a left-handed pitcher and reliable outfielder.

Laws and Leach will handle a lot of innings, with freshman Braden Perry, sophomore Cody Myers, sophomore Nathan Mecke, and perhaps Embry and Edwards also in the mix.

Liberty is carrying two seniors, five juniors, three sophomores and four freshmen.

“This year I sort of have to rebuild, but everybody is going through the same stuff,” said Determan.

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