For Prairie City-Monroe head baseball coach Shaun Hudnut, the upcoming season is all about “taking the next step.”
The Mustangs return roughly two-thirds of their starting position players from a team that earned a first-round bye in districts last year.
Despite that, Hudnut knows there are a few holes his squad will have to sure up to at least repeat, if not improve upon, last season’s success.
“The good thing is we have a lot of guys coming back with experience,” he said. “Even guys who were part time starters — we’ve got two seniors who were part time starters and started 15, 20 games [and] we’ve got another junior outfielder who started about 15 games — it’s a matter of those guys taking the next step and being a little more consistent at the plate for us.”
At the plate is where Hudnut feels his team could use the most help this season. The Mustangs lost three seniors from a year ago — Ethan Kain, Nathan VandeWall and Alex DeWitte — who were significant contributors throughout their high school careers. All three players batted close to or above .350 as seniors and were among the team’s leaders in every offensive statistical category.
“They were clutch hitters for us,” current senior Glen Gillispie said. “We really relied on them a lot. It’s going to be tough to replace them, but I think we can.”
Hudnut’s confidence in being able to replace those three players in the batting order stems from having returners who played last year as underclassmen and now have a year’s worth of experience to bring to the field.
PCM’s fifth-year head coach mentioned four players in particular — junior Trey Lindsay, sophomore Clay Cooper, junior Chase Keuning and senior Zach Uhlenhopp — who he envisions filling in and becoming the team’s middle-of-the-order hitters.
Cooper delivered an impressive freshman season for the Mustangs, hitting .353 and posting an on-base percentage of .417. He tied VandeWall for the team’s third-highest RBI total at 17.
“It’s a concern, but it’s something that we feel like we have enough guys that we can figure out the right balance that we need,” Hudnut said of replacing last year’s seniors. “It’s important to find the offense to replace those guys. Like I said, we got guys that are coming back, and we just need to take the next step.”
Gillispie, Uhlenhopp and fellow senior Troy Vittetoe all agreed their team’s strength heading into the season is its defense.
Hudnut said the team returns seven starters from its 2013 lineup, which should help provide consistent defense as the team adjusts to life without one of its top pitchers from the past few seasons in DeWitte. The right-hander held opponents to a .228 batting average last season.
“We’re pretty happy with what we have,” Hudnut said. “It’s just a matter of working and progressing and developing those guys that need to step up and take a little bigger role.”