• Rick Capone, Sports Editor

Bat Jackets looking for much improved season

The Woodford County High School baseball team is looking to have a much better season this year under second-year head coach Paul Patterson than it did last year in his first season. Armed with a number of seasoned returners, the team is much better prepared this year after playing some fall ball in a league in Lexington. In addition, the team has a new sense of energy, enthusiasm and confidence, which will, hopefully, translate into a successful season. “I’ve got some high expectations for this team,” said Patterson. “We’re working really hard. The fall was different than anything we’ve done in the past. We only worked on our defense, so I’m optimistic that our defense is going to be much improved. We did a lot of individual work, did a lot of team defense and we didn’t take any batting practice in the fall. “We had a successful fall. We played in the Shilleto Park league and we ended up fairing pretty good. There are some things that we still need to work on, but I feel confident that this will be a different team this year than last year. “… We’ve got a bunch of guys right now that are working hard and are being coachable. They’re bringing a lot of energy to practice, they’re learning, they’re getting better, and they’re starting to understand what it is we’re asking of them. So, I don’t want to make any promises, but I’m ready to play.” Last year, Woodford finished the season 12-20 overall, 6-9 in the region and 4-3 in the district. Its season ended in the first round of the district playoffs with a 6-0 loss to Franklin County. This year, Patterson believes things will be much different. In terms of the competition, in the district, he believes his team might be the team to beat. While he is not 100 percent positive, “… I think Western Hills is going to be returning some hitters, but they lose some pitching. I think that Franklin County lost some hitters, but might return a little pitching. I’m really optimistic about our team. I feel like we returned a good core and the guys around them have greatly improved, so I feel like, going into the season, we’re the team to beat in the district.” Patterson also believes anybody can win the 11th Region this year. He says that Lexington Catholic, Madison Central, Lafayette and Tates Creek are some of the teams to keep an eye on this year. Also, there are always teams like Sayre, under coach Kevin Cleary, that can “sneak up and bite you because they understand the game. “It just depends on what pitchers we face in the region and how our arms throw and if we can string a couple hits together, lock them down defensively and keep them off the board,” said Patterson. “If it’s low scoring games, I feel like we can compete with those guys and, hopefully, give it a run and win the region this year. We’ve got a couple quality arms that can … beat anybody. It’s just a matter of us going out and doing it.” As to the Bat Jackets’ roster, it all starts with pitching. “In my opinion I’ve got several number one guys,” said Patterson. “I don’t have anybody throwing 90-plus mph, but I’ve got guys that their arms work really good. They throw strikes. They’ve got good breaking balls. They’re competitive. And, they get the game moving. With a little defense behind those guys, I feel like we can be very competitive. That’s why we focused so much on (defense).” One of the first guys to watch on the mound is senior Parker Thomas. “Parker Thomas throws the ball really well,” said Patterson. “Right now, I think he’s been mid- to upper-80s from this fall into the spring. He’s got a nice tight slider and he’s pitched a lot. He’s got some experience on the mound over the last couple of years. … I think he’s motivated. He’s committed to play college baseball – I think Indiana-Southeast. So, he’s excited about his future there and he’s working hard on being successful at the next level.” Another pitcher to watch is senior Jack Ockerman, a left-hander who, when not pitching, can also play multiple positions on the field. “Jack Ockerman’s got a really good feel for the game,” said Patterson. “He’s got a good curveball. He throws a lot of strikes. And, of course, he’s left handed, (and) when you’ve got a lefty, that gives people havoc. Then, on top of that, he can pitch.” A couple other players who could get pitching starts are junior Hunter Hilbert, who has been successfully converted from a catcher to a pitcher; sophomore Logan Slone, senior Seth Denton and junior Collin Murray. As for relievers, Denton is a possibility, as are seniors Dalton Smither and Joseph Sutherland, who Patterson said might fill the closer role because of his delivery. “Joseph Sutherland’s got a delivery that is very ballistic and he never repeats it,” said Patterson. “It never looks the same. It’s always something different. He throws it as hard as he can and the ball moves in a different direction every time. We don’t really know what he’s going to get, besides the fact that he throws it for a strike. So, it keeps the hitters off balance. He was really effective in the fall. If I can throw him for an inning after Parker or Jack or Hilbert, I think he’ll have a successful season in the one- to one-and-a-half inning role.” At catcher, Patterson is looking to sophomore Charlie Corum to be behind the plate most of the time. “Charlie Corum swings the bat really well and he’s a workhorse defensively,” said Patterson. “He’s a really tough kid and he’s worked hard enough to earn the starting catching spot.” Backing him up will be senior Harrison Keith. “The pitchers like throwing to (Harrison),” said Patterson. “They’ve got a great relationship with him. They trust him. He knows he’s had some work to do offensively, but he’s put in the work this offseason, so I’m optimistic to see what that looks like this spring.” At first base, there are a few players competing for the position in juniors Steven Lange and Josh Hall, as well as Thomas and Ockerman. “That’s one position that’s probably going to be a revolving door the first part of the year until we get a rotation ironed out,” said Patterson. “Hopefully, we’ll have something in concrete by the end of our Florida trip. But, it really just depends on how our middle infield goes.” At second base, junior Caleb McNeely has performed well there so far. Other players who might get some time there are sophomore Ben Browning and junior Hunter Selby. At shortstop, senior Alec Neff has earned the position. While Neff tried a few positions last year, “I think his heart was set on shortstop,” said Patterson. “So, I said to him, ‘You know what, if you go out and play shortstop, I don’t care if you hit, I don’t care if you pitch well, I don’t care if you play outfield, I don’t care about any of that, as long as you… you catch everything at shortstop, it’ll be yours.’ … He’s probably one of my most improved players from last year to this year.” At third base, sophomore Griffin Blankenship and Browning will see time playing the corner. In the outfield, at this time, Denton is slotted to play right field when he is not pitching. Ockerman will also see time in the outfield when he’s not pitching or playing first base. Last year he played a lot in center field. In left field, junior Sam Flora will see some time there, as well as freshman Noah Pictor. With the season fast approaching, Patterson thinks fans who come out to watch the team this year will be happy to see how they play. “I think you’re going to see a whole lot different team, as far as the type of energy our guys play,” said Patterson. “They’re enthusiastic, they’re a lot more prepared, they know what we expect, they know how we anticipate playing the game. … I think that (fans) can expect to come out and see a fast-moving game where we get them (the opponents) in and out defensively, and hopefully we score more than they do.” Assisting Patterson this year will be a number of returning coaches and a few new ones. David Billingsly returns for his second season and will be the head coach of the JV team. He will be assisted by two new coaches, West Harris and Kevin Haury. Also returning to assist Patterson this year are Luke Hawkins, Greg Laswell and Bruce Hadden. Finally, another new coach stepping in this year is Curtis Ham, who was a member of Woodford’s 2012 state championship team. “I’m really excited for this year,” said Patterson. “We have expanded our coaching staff, … The player-to-coach ratio is better this year than it was last year. Also, the early start (with fall ball). (We know) what we needed to work on in the fall going into this spring was beneficial. So, I’m excited to get started. I’m anxious for year two and I love coaching this team.” Coming up, Woodford opens the season at Bryan Station on Wednesday, March 15, at 5:30. Then they play their home opener on Friday, March 17, at 5:30, against Madison Central.

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