QUICKSBURG – There were moments last season when Stonewall Jackson head coach Jeremy Knight expressed his disappointment with the mental approach the Generals took to certain games, ones in which they fell flat in lopsided losses.
The culprit, Knight said earlier this week, likely had something to do with the makeup of the 2018 roster. Stonewall wasn’t exactly flush with what Knight called “baseball players”– kids who play year-round and understand the finer aspects of the sport. Instead, Knight said, most of the Generals were simply kids who played baseball during the spring season and focused their attention elsewhere outside the months of February through May.
An influx of young, baseball-loving players this year might mean many of the issues that plagued the Generals in Knight’s first season in 2018 are in the rearview mirror.
“This year I’ve got a lot more baseball guys like this is what they do, this is what they love,” Knight said on Tuesday. “They've done it; they pay to play on travel teams and go to California. I have a lot more guys that are a little bit more invested in baseball than I had last year.”
The hope is that baseball experience addresses Stonewall’s biggest area of need: production at the plate.
The Generals, who went 6-17 and were ousted by Riverheads in the Region 1B semifinals in 2018, batted just .244 as a team and posted a .301 slugging percentage last season, numbers that didn’t do enough to make up for their bouts with poor fielding. Only one General, then-senior Tyler Somers, hit above .300.
Stonewall did average 5.4 runs per game last year, but 60 of the Generals’ 124 runs scored came against three teams (Robert E. Lee, Luray and Rappahannock County). Take out the five games played against that trio and Stonewall averaged only 3.5 runs per contest.
Knight said improving at the plate demanded most of Stonewall’s offseason focus – he purchased a digital swing tracker so the Generals could get more in-depth analysis – and added that the team would do more charting during games of things such as opposing pitchers’ tendencies and Stonewall’s percentage of barrelling-up the baseball.
“Hitting, I think, is gonna improve this year,” Knight said. “I’ve told the guys that it’s the approach we’re gonna have to take. By the time the season starts I can’t change an entire swing, so we’ve done a lot in the offseason to work on that with like the Diamond Kinetics trainer and things like that, just to kind of show them, because these kids nowadays are visual and they gotta see it to believe it.”
Any rise in offensive production for Stonewall this season will need to come from those who didn’t provide a lot of it for the Generals in 2018. The graduation of a large group of seniors means Stonewall lost 70 percent of its RBI production and four of its top five hitters, including a pair of All-Region 1B honorees in Somers (.306, one home run, 15 RBIs) and Nick Dotson and 2018 RBI leader Matt Dove (19).
“It always starts off with the young guys getting in here,” Generals senior Logan Ritchie, who hit .273 with 10 RBIs and 18 runs scored last season, said of making up for that lost production. “It’s like a big change of pace in the game, so it takes them a little bit to get used to it, but they catch on eventually, and they do good. The guys last year, they led, so just the seniors this year just need to step up and lead the team the way that last year’s guys did.”
Though Stonewall also graduated 70 percent of its innings pitched from a year ago (Somers, Dotson and Dove combined to throw 99 ⅔ innings), Knight said he’s not nearly as concerned about the status of the Generals’ pitching staff heading into 2019.
Junior Tyler Dellinger threw 16 innings last season and will slot in as Stonewall’s ace this spring, Knight said, and Austin Ritchie posted a 2.63 ERA in 24 innings in 2018, though Knight said he’s unsure whether the sophomore will be used as a starter or in the middle-to-late innings.
Freshman Adrian Chaparro-Vann already has a fastball that approaches 80 mph, Knight added, and Jaden Click, another freshman, figures to make contributions on the mound and at catcher.
“Right now I know I’m gonna get a lot of run out of the three freshmen that I pulled up, which is (infielder) Dawson Moomaw, Jaden Click and Adrian Chaparro-Vann,” Knight said. “Those are three names that I think you’re gonna hear a lot of out of this program for the next four years. Jaden and Adrian were probably varsity ready last year as eighth-graders.”
Knight added that other varsity newcomers like sophomore infielders Nicholas Foltz and James Zirkle, both left-handed hitters, could help bolster a lineup that includes more varsity-experienced bats like the Ritchie brothers and seniors Matt Showman and Chase Streett.
“We’re gonna be young, and I told my guys that I don't discriminate between ages. If a freshman’s outhitting a senior, the freshman’s gonna play,” Knight said.
“There’s a lot of potential with this team, and there’s a lot of different pieces. There’s a lot of guys that can play a lot of positions, and so really what’s gonna come down to dictating their playing time is how well they do at the plate. I know we can play in the field, I know guys can play multiple positions, but it’s gonna come down to who’s getting it done at the plate.”
Stonewall, like every other team in the area, has had limited outdoor practice time this preseason due to weather and had its scrimmages wiped out because of unplayable field conditions. The Generals are scheduled to start the regular season at home against Strasburg on Monday.
“We’re very young this year. I hope (for) big things from this season. Early on, we haven’t seen live pitching, which is kind of disappointing but I think we’ll be OK,” said Showman, one of three current Generals who were on the 2017 team that reached the Class 1 state championship game.
“We might be young and we might be doubted but our goal every year is to get back to where we were.”