By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
Danny Wood wasn't sure, just a few months ago, whether he'd even have a baseball team to coach this summer.
Wood, who volunteered to lead the Front Royal Post 53 squad last year along with assistant coach Pat Lightle, found out in early spring that the team might not have enough funding to play this season. Through active fundraising efforts and some needed community support, Wood held the team together -- and it looks to be quite a team this year. Front Royal begins its home slate at Front Royal's Bing Crosby Stadium on Sunday with a doubleheader against Warrenton Post 72. Game time for the opener is 1 p.m.
Post 53 opened its season Thursday with a 7-3 victory over Culpeper Post 330, flashing what Wood hopes will be a consistent formula for winning this season -- strong starting pitching and timely hitting.
Jeff Cash, a newcomer from Luray High School, pitched six innings for the win. Cash is just one of several experienced arms Wood can call on this season.
Last year's squad featured mostly Warren County players, and second team all-Evergreen District pick Tyler Moody is the returning ace from last year's squad. But crosstown rival Skyline is contributing a bit more to the Post 53 roster this year, with first team all-Northwestern District hurler Chaz Rutherford among the top new acquisitions.
Cash, Moody and Rutherford form the heart of a strong potential rotation along with James Wood graduate Mike Craig and Sherando's Justin Angel, while the Warriors' Taylor Loudan could be Front Royal's top bullpen arm this season. Skyline's Sterling Jennings and Warren County's Joey Catalani should also see time on the mound this summer.
"Our depth in pitching is going to be better than last year," Wood said. "Although they outperformed my expectations last year."
Front Royal managed a 12-14 record last year, and the additions to this year's roster don't stop with the pitching staff.
Second team all-Evergreen selection Tyler Post from Warren County is back to anchor what Wood hopes will be a steady infield. Post's teammate on the Wildcats, Logan Hibbs, is back to man third base. Warren County graduate Cory Zimmerman is also back to start at second base, and Millbrook's Jeremiah Eaton is another returnee slated to play first base.
"Our infield is intact," Wood said. "I think we should be better this year, but you've got to go out and show it. You can't just talk about it."
Rutherford, Loudan and Angel are also all in the mix for Front Royal this season.
Cory Zimmerman's brother and fellow Warren County graduate, Cody, is back to cover left field. The Wildcats' Ryan Tierney, a first team all-Evergreen selection as a senior, is a solid defender in center field. Right field could feature Skyline's Hunter Stewart, Loudan, Sherando's Jeb Brown, Hibbs or even Moody. That group also provides plenty of depth.
Warren County's Heath Almarode, Luray's Aaron Cook and Sherando's Brown give Post 53 a number of options behind the plate at catcher.
Another component of Front Royal's success this season should be its speed on the basepaths. Wood said that last year's squad was successful stealing bases well over 90 percent of the time. He expects that to continue this year.
"We're going to run, put some pressure on the opposing defense," Wood said.
More good news for the team is the continued presence of Lightle, who elected to return to the college baseball coaching ranks when he accepted the head coaching position at Messiah College (Pa.) last month. The Winchester native previously worked as the head coach at Bristol University (Tenn.), where he led his team to the National Small College Athletic Association championship in 1994. He also spent four years as the associate head coach at Coastal Carolina.
"His contract starts August 1, but he's going to be with us all season," Wood said. "He'll miss a game or two here and there, but he's going to be a big part of our program."