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New faces abound for Valley League teams

By Tommy Keeler Jr. - tkeeler@nvdaily.com

There are a lot of new faces in the Valley Baseball League this season. Three of the four area Valley League teams have brand-new managers this season.

For new Woodstock manager Phil Betterly, it's not his first merry-go-round with the Valley League. Betterly was an assistant coach with New Market in 2010. Betterly said he knows the competition will be tough this season.

"I expect good competition every night," Betterly said. "You can't take a night off. You have to be prepared to play every night."

The River Bandits have two returning players from last year's team -- Scott Burkett (Longwood University) and Michael Vinson (Delta State).

Burkett said he's excited about the team this year.

"I really like the community, and it was a good experience last year," Burkett said. "I really love the people here and the atmosphere."

Word of mouth also helped bring in some new players for the River Bandits. Tanner Leighton told a few of his teammates at The Master's College (Calif.) and now both Cody Harris and James Scott are playing for the River Bandits.

"Tanner [Leighton] told me all about it," Scott said. "So far, things are looking great. It looks like it's going to be a lot of fun. I'm very excited for the season."

The River Bandits finished 20-24 last season. Betterly said the team is missing about eight players, but he expects to have them all here within the next two weeks. Vinson, Jordan Chovanec and Jared Bond are all playing for Delta State in the Division II World Series. Tyler Mims and Wes Kent are playing for the University of Alabama-Birmingham, which is playing in the Division I Regionals.

The River Bandits play today at Winchester at 7 p.m.

New Market is now being coached by John Combs, who is also an assistant coach at the University of Rio Grande (Ohio).

The Rebels have plenty of players from Division I schools on their team, with players from Hofstra, Clemson, Delaware, Notre Dame, Ohio State and George Mason on the roster.

They start their season off at Rockbridge today at 7 p.m. The Rebels went 23-24 last year. They lost in three games to Covington in the first round of the VBL playoffs.

Front Royal is being coached by Clayton Kuklick, who was an assistant coach at Shepherd University in 2010. Former Sherando standout Matt McCarty will be one of his assistant coaches.

"We're almost there -- we don't have everybody in yet, but we're at about 18 with one coming in [today] and five coming in Saturday," Kuklick said. "We've had two workouts so far, and everybody's excited and just itching to go."

The Cardinals went 20-27 last year, losing to Harrisonburg in two games in the first round of the playoffs. Front Royal open its season today at Haymarket at 7:30 p.m. Canisius right-hander Garrett Cortright is the lone returnee from last season's squad, and will join a staff also featuring lanky right-hander Darin Wiltgen (Georgia College), left-hander Zach Bargeron (West Virginia) and relief ace Jon Fitzsimmons (Canisius).

Offensively, Front Royal native and Campbellsville catcher Keeton Neeb joins Hartford's James Alfonso behind the plate, and Kuklick is also relying on solid contributions from shortstop Billy Fleming (West Virginia), plus a pair of outfielders from Young-Harris (Ga.) College -- David Atwood and Zach Bricknell.

"My first impression is that the ball hasn't really traveled that well," Kuklick said of the Cardinals' home field, Bing Crosby Stadium. "The [dimensions] indicate that maybe it's a little bit of a hitter's park, but we haven't seen it and Keeton tells us that the ball doesn't really travel that well here."

The one manager that is back is Strasburg's Butch Barnes. It is the second year as a franchise for the Express, and Barnes said he learned a lot from last year.

"It takes depth and quality pitching," Barnes said. "I think we have a more talented team than last year."

Last year the Express finished 15-29, but the biggest problem the team had was with pitching. Barnes said he feels confident he has a better staff this year.

The Express have 15 pitchers on their roster, and Barnes said he likes carrying plenty of pitchers so that he doesn't have to overuse anyone. Barnes said he has been really impressed with Baron Davis, from Harvard University.

Many of the players had arrived by Tuesday, and Barnes said there will be more arriving today, for the team's opener at Luray. The Express play all their home games at 6:30 p.m., but don't have their first home contest until June 7.

The players are excited for the season.

"It's been great," Strasburg shortstop Billy Motroni said. "I love the small town, and the guys have all been great. We're having a good time, and we all love to play baseball."

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