By Brad Fauber
STEPHENS CITY -- For Sherando senior Chase Smallwood, being a leader on the baseball diamond just comes naturally.
Smallwood, a four-year varsity catcher and a first-team all-Group AA selection last year for the defending state champion Warriors, has helped fill that role plenty of times for Sherando over the last few seasons. At this point, Smallwood's got the whole leadership thing down pat.
"I'm just going to do the same exact thing that I've been doing," Smallwood said before practice on Wednesday. "[Head coach Pepper Martin] relies on me to be the leader and I want to be the one to step up and be that guy. I've been doing it ever since I was a 9-year-old kid, trying to be the leader."
But while Smallwood's status a role model and a mentor to some of the younger Warriors remains largely unchanged this season, his responsibilities on the field for Sherando will take a bit of a turn.
Sherando lost a lot of valuable experience to graduation from last year's Group AA state championship team, including a huge portion of the Warriors' pitching depth. Gone is left-hander John Bentley, who pitched to a 10-0 record and a 0.58 ERA as a senior last season. Also graduated are Justin Angel, Taylor Loudan and Jeb Brown, who ate up some innings on the mound for Sherando a year ago.
Senior Reid Entsminger -- a second-team all-Group AA pick last season who went 8-0 with a 0.53 ERA -- does return as the ace of this year's staff, and junior Adam Whitacre brings varsity pitching experience to the No. 2 spot in the rotation for Sherando. But behind those two, varsity pitching experience is thin for the Warriors.
Smallwood will be called upon to bridge that gap for the Warriors, as Martin said Smallwood will serve as Sherando's No. 3 pitcher this season and should see somewhere around five or six starts throughout the year.
Pitching is nothing new to Smallwood, who said he primarily worked from the mound before moving behind the plate several years ago. Smallwood has had a few starts for Sherando as well, and he even tossed a six-inning perfect game in a win over Brentsville early last season.
"I'm excited about it," said Smallwood, who added that his fastball currently tops out at about 81 miles per hour. "As a kid I was always a pitcher, I didn't start catching until I was probably about 13 years old. I've always been a pitcher, that's always been my number one position until I started catching. I'd rather catch than pitch more, but if my team needs me on the mound I'll go pitch, definitely."
That's good news for Sherando, which will need all the experience it can get if the Warriors hope to make another deep playoff run.
Sherando lost more than half its starting lineup from last season, and Smallwood, Entsminger and Whitacre make up the bulk of the returning experience for the Warriors.
"We have a lot of work to do," Martin said. "Not only did we lose five starters from last year's team, but we lost our entire starting infield and we lost two of our four outfielders."
Smallwood's importance within the Warriors' pitching staff will also carry over to his catching duties, as well. The senior said he has worked closely with Sherando's pitchers since November to develop a sense of familiarity with each one.
Martin noted that Smallwood is one of only a handful of catchers in Sherando's 21-year history that has been given the freedom to call pitches during games.
"He's a student of the game," Martin said. "He knows opposing hitters. He can tell you how they set up in the box when they come to the plate. He can formulate a plan almost immediately on how he wants to attack those hitters. He gives us an advantage there. ... Being behind the plate and being the quality catcher that he is, he gives us basically another coach that's on the field."
Martin added that Smallwood's ability to manage the game from the catcher position will be crucial to the development of some of Sherando's less experienced arms.
"The main thing is -- and we need this -- is he makes our pitchers look good," Martin said. "He does a nice job of that, getting some marginal pitches called for strikes that I think, as you progress through the season, will be a huge benefit to us in developing the confidence of the pitching staff."
At the plate, Smallwood will bump up a spot in the lineup from cleanup to the No. 3 hole, a spot that was held down by former second baseman Jacob Carney for several seasons. Smallwood said Carney, a first-team all-region pick last year, provided him with some protection in the lineup that Smallwood doesn't expect to have this season. That theory was backed up in Monday's scrimmage at Albemarle.
"The other day I saw probably four fastballs the whole day," said Smallwood, who hit .438 with four home runs and 34 RBIs last year. "I know for a fact that all I'm going to see this year are curveballs and changeups. If they do leave me a fastball, then I'm going to tee off on it. That's going to be my goal. If I get a first-pitch fastball I've got to hit it because I know I'm not going to see many of them."
Sherando -- now competing in Group 4A -- opens the season with a tough test on the road against Potomac Falls on Monday, and Smallwood said the Warriors are focused on taking one game at a time this season, with the primary goal being to win another Northwestern District title.
"Our goal is to win district right now," said Smallwood, who signed in November to play baseball at Division II Shepherd University. "We'll still be good. We'll be fine, everybody's just got to work a little bit harder than we did last year."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD