WOODSTOCK -- Central’s baseball team put together what head coach Sean Semones has called the best season in the program’s history in 2018. The Falcons must now find a way live up to higher expectations while reloading a lineup that was depleted by graduation.
Central went 18-4 a year ago and won the Bull Run District’s regular season championship. The only knock on what was an otherwise historic season was the Falcons’ loss to Clarke County in the district tournament championship game and their quick playoff exit in the first round of the Region 2B tournament.
The Falcons have since lost six starters from that 2018 squad, and though that means there are plenty of holes that need filling, that doesn’t mean the bar has dropped any lower heading into Semones’ third season at the helm.
“It sets a high expectation right off the bat,” Falcons senior shortstop John French said last Friday of the impact of 2018’s success. “There’s no catch-up game. My sophomore year we kind of had a transition season. There’s no transition season (this year). We’ve gotta go into it, as a team go in together, try to meet our expectations where they were last year, try to play at as high a level as we did. And having lost our seniors, it’s gonna be difficult but we’ve got people ready to go and fill in spots, so I think it'll be good.”
French, who is entering his fourth season as a varsity starter, is part of a core group of experienced varsity veterans that includes fellow seniors Sam Shifflett and Andrew Daugherty, an all-region designated hitter, and junior Kelan Hoover, who last season went from a junior-varsity call-up to Central’s top pitcher.
Junior infielder Silas Ruhling filled valuable innings at second base and third base last spring when holes opened up due to suspensions and injuries. Fellow juniors Michael French and Chase Helsley were role players in the outfield a year ago, and pitcher/outfielder Brandon Davis rounds out the Falcons’ quartet of seniors.
Shifflett, a pitcher and first baseman, said that while the Falcons are lacking in varsity game experience, they are a team filled with juniors and seniors who have been playing together since Little League.
“We haven’t had a bad practice yet,” Shifflett said. “I think after last season we set the bar really high and the kids that were on JV saw that, and the ones that came up were like ‘let’s go higher this year.’ So we want to have the same season and then make a little playoff run to cap it off this year. I think it’s just the motivation is there this year.”
Central’s offseason participation was indicative of that. Semones, a Central grad, introduced a weight-lifting program last summer and lauded the number of kids who showed up on a daily basis.
“That has shown a lot on the field,” John French said. “Our arms have been a lot stronger, and I think it’ll show once we actually get to hit on the baseball field, balls traveling farther, coming off the bat hotter. (Semones) has just done a tremendous job just rounding everybody up, and I feel like he’s into it. When you have a coach that’s into it as much as he is, it makes you want to get into you, so you just feel the urgency and that affects us in the way we play.”
Central’s style of play will look a little different this season compared to a year ago. The Falcons leaned heavily on Estep, who led the team in every major offensive category, in 2018, and Central lost three of its top five batting average leaders and five of its top seven RBI men from last season.
Of the returning players from that 2018 squad, only Shifflett (.365, five doubles, 18 RBIs), Daugherty (.349, 10 RBIs, 18 runs scored) and John French (.310, 18 RBIs) posted a .300 average and at least 10 RBIs.
Semones said this season’s Falcons won’t be able to “drive in runs left and right.”
“We’re definitely gonna have to be more of a defensive team this year, we don’t have the firepower,” French said. “We’re gonna play small ball and we’re gonna get it done nitty and gritty this year.”
That puts more emphasis on pitching, and one of the Falcons’ biggest question marks this season is who will step in as the team’s third starter behind Hoover and Shifflett.
Shifflett’s time on the mound was limited last season due to an elbow injury and he logged just 18 ⅓ innings in 2018. Hoover, who was bumped to the varsity squad a game into the season, headlined a deep pitching staff last year, posting a 6-1 record, a 1.80 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 50 ⅔ innings and earning second team All-Region 2B honors.
Semones said several Falcons are competing for the third starter job this preseason.
“Me and Sam, we talked and we're like we’ve gotta be the ones to hold the team together and push and give everybody confidence,” Hoover said, “because us two are probably the best pitchers that are still here (from) last year. We’re gonna have to work.”
Central, which has reached the regional tournament in each of Semones’ first two seasons after not making a regional appearance in the previous six years, opens the 2019 season next Monday at Skyline.
“The last two seasons were very successful for us here, so I truly feel like we have the winning way and the winning mentality at this school now, and we have confidence and believe we’ve proven what we can do,” Semones said. “We just approached it with a lot of hard work this offseason and didn’t take anything for granted, what we won last year. We know it’s a whole new season. … We’ve worked really hard during the offseason and we know we have a lot of work to do if we’re gonna be successful again.”