Winfield's Mason Dillon went 9-1 with a 1.60 ERA last year for the Generals.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Don't look for much to change at the top of Kanawha Valley Class AAA baseball this season.Nitro and Hurricane, the area's dominant programs since 2005, both come off 27-win seasons and both are expected to flex their muscle and hustle again this year and contend for spots in the state tournament."We've still got the same goals as we do every year here,'' said Nitro coach Steve Pritchard, "and that's to try and win 20 games and try to get to the state tournament.''The Wildcats have now done that six straight years, winning a pair of state titles and coming in second twice. Nitro has won 20 or more games eight straight years, averaging 26.3 wins over that span.Hurricane, on the other hand, has won 20 or more seven times in eight seasons, averaging 24.3 victories in that stretch.Nitro suffered a key loss from last year in catcher Korey Dunbar, the state's player of the year, but Dunbar was the squad's only senior.Returning are a trio of top pitchers in right-handers Ryan McDonough (8-2, 2.43 ERA) and Tyler Barton (6-1) and left-hander Kip Brewer (2.30 ERA). McDonough and Winfield lefty Mason Dillon (9-1, 1.60 ERA) should be two of the area's best AAA pitchers.The other eight starters for Nitro are all back in first baseman Dylan Slack (.389, 41 RBIs), second baseman Evan Eich, shortstop Solomon Shamblin, third baseman Eric Keller, and Barton, Ethan Clark and Brewer in the outfield. Freshman Matt Jewell takes over as catcher."It's the first time I can ever remember starting a freshman at catcher,'' Pritchard said. "We're used to having Korey back there. After three years, you get spoiled. [Jewell] will be a good one, but there's definitely going to be a learning curve.''Hurricane lost four seniors but, like Nitro, should be strong again on the mound.Senior Riley Metz (6-2, 2.44 ERA, 53 strikeouts in 43 innings), junior Austin Hensley (6-0, 2.06) and sophomore J.T. Rogoszewski lead the pitching talent.
Among returning position players, infielder Riley Metz (.390) held the top batting average while catcher Tate Brock led the Redskins in homers (three) and runs batted in (29). Another infielder, Hensley, batted .333 and Zach Pate swiped 23 bases.Hurricane coach Brian Sutphin said the lineup is a bit more settled now than it was a year ago, when the team had to replace eight departed seniors at the outset."Last year we didn't have any expectations because we lost so many guys from a team that was pretty daggone good,'' Sutphin said. "Going into last year, no one knew where they were at. Now we return more regulars and I think they're physically a lot stronger than we were last year."We're excited, and anytime you return some guys [there are expectations], but at the same time there are no guarantees. Just because you played last year doesn't mean you'll be better the next year. It certainly helps being a year older. We've got a lot of multi-sport athletes who have had success in other sports, and they definitely work hard in the weight room and I think that helps prepare them for baseball season.''
Two other Kanawha Valley teams reached the state tournament last season, Herbert Hoover in AA and Charleston Catholic in Class A. Each could make a return visit, owing to the talent it can field.The Huskies (27-9 last year) appear to have enough back to make another run at Appalachian Power Park, especially in the batting order.
Senior outfielder Corey Bird, a Marshall recruit, is the top returning hitter in either Kanawha or Putnam county, as he comes off a .483 average that included just one strikeout (looking) in 116 at-bats. He also led the Kanawha Valley with 51 runs scored and 40 stolen bases and also drove in 31 runs.Other top hitters back in the lineup are Cody Bowen (.369) and Tristan Fields (.363, 30 RBIs). Fields is also the ace of the pitching staff after an 8-1 season that included 74 strikeouts in 611/3 innings and a 4.14 ERA.Catholic (29-9) welcomed back six returning starters, including first-team all-staters Kiefer Hovorka (pitcher-shortstop) and Rocco Wilcox (outfield). The others are pitcher-outfielder Andy Hoyer, catcher Drew Cable, infielder Connor Golden and first baseman Nelson McKown.Hovorka (7-3, 2.39 ERA) fanned an impressive 93 batters in 671/3 innings last year, and Hoyer (10-2, 2.72) also put up solid numbers, striking out 68 in 72 innings.
Wilcox hit .459 with 17 stolen bases last year, Golden .437 with 38 RBIs and 19 steals, McKown .422 with 45 RBIs and Cable .353 with 37 RBIs.The Irish have advanced to the state tournament seven times in the last 11 years.Capsule looks at other teams around the Kanawha Valley (with last year's record in parentheses):Buffalo (19-16) - The Bison burst out of the gate last year, winning 10 of its first 12 games, but was inconsistent the rest of the way. Senior Levi Jordan leads the pitchers and will also play shortstop. Junior outfielder Laythen Good (27 steals) adds speed to the lineup. Expect juniors Bradley Harris, Aaron Lewis and Blake Caplinger to play big roles.Capital (11-22) - The Cougars feature eight juniors who have started games, including infielder Justin Palmer (.379, 18 RBIs), while pitchers with the most experience are Jacob Williams (2-4, 3.27, 39 Ks in 402/3 innings), Seth Roadcap (21 Ks in 28 innings) and Kaleb Kinder (20 Ks in 26 innings).George Washington (17-14) - The Patriots lost four seniors who hit better than .350 and blasted a combined 34 homers last season, but again expect to compete behind a strong sophomore class, led by pitchers Jeff Wong (5-4) and Clayton Anderson. In GW's opening 9-1 win against Wyoming East, Grant Wooten and John Thomas each had two hits and Wooten fired a four-hitter.Poca (21-13) - The Dots return their top four hitters and top three pitchers. The leading sticks belong to catcher Evan McClanahan (.458, 35 RBIs), infielder Noah Frampton (.414), first baseman David Taylor (.389, 31 RBIs) and infielder Cam Cottrill (.371). Jake Payne (4-4, 1.51, 73 Ks in 51 innings), Frampton (8-3, 1.99, 58 Ks in 522/3 innings) and Travis Covert (3-3, 36 Ks in 381/3 innings) head the pitching staff.Riverside (20-16) - The Warriors posted their first winning season since 2009 last year and won 20 games for the first time, losing to eventual Class AAA champion Princeton in the regional final. Trevor Rumberg (.388, 27 RBIs) leads the returning hitters, followed by Aaron Halstead (.325) and Tyler Hall (.297, 33 RBIs). Hall is also the top pitcher, fanning 51 in 50 innings last year with 3.25 ERA.Sissonville (11-21) - The Indians return several experienced pitchers, led by senior left-hander Zach Null (6-8, 2.75, 93 strikeouts in 811/3 innings) and junior Eli Mooney (57 Ks in 611/3 innings). Top bats belong to catcher Dominic Walker (.389), Null (.371) and J.R. Stricklen (.358).South Charleston (9-25) - The Black Eagles lost six senior starters, but return players such as catcher Jonathan Cline (.384, 31 RBIs, 19 steals), infielder Austin Santrock (23 RBIs, 18 steals) and pitcher Jared Jobst (3-5, 491/3 innings).St. Albans (24-7) - The Red Dragons lost eight seniors from last year's 24-win squad, but return key talent like pitcher Joey Dodrill (5-2, 49 Ks in 401/3 innings), designated hitter-catcher Josh Burkes (.344, 20 RBIs) and infielder Dustin Turley (.319).Winfield (18-13) - Besides Dillon, who worked 74 innings last year and struck out 61, the Generals sport more strong pitching in Dana Harper (2.35 ERA in 442/3 innings) and Zach Strong (19 Ks in 131/3 innings before an arm injury). Junior infielder Brandon Wright hit .379 last year and scored 30 runs.Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or email@example.com.