STEPHENS CITY — Many high school baseball teams lean on their pitching staffs early in the season, when the arms are typically thought to be further along than the bats that tend to warm up with the weather and as live at-bats increase. Sherando may very well ride its pitching staff all season long.

The Warriors return three of their top four pitchers from 2018, and given how Sherando struggled to produce offensively in run-scoring situations last spring, head coach Pepper Martin said those arms could be what carries the Warriors into the new season, at least through the first few weeks.

“We feel our pitching staff could very well be our strength this year. That could kind of offset the fact that we have yet to practice on the field outside, and also it usually takes the hitters a few games to catch up with the pitching,” the longtime Sherando coach, whose team went 13-8 last season, said on Friday afternoon. “But we feel that our pitching staff could very well be the strength simply because of the returners we have.”

Senior right-hander Hunter Entsminger, who signed with James Madison University last November, headlines Sherando’s 2019 pitching staff and is a multi-year starter who posted a 4-1 record, a 1.69 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 37-1/3 innings pitched last season. Martin noted that Entsminger appears fully healthy after suffering a knee injury during football season.

Fellow senior Jared Tinsman is coming off a season in which he led the Warriors with 41 innings pitched, logging a 1.71 ERA and 35 strikeouts over a team-high 10 appearances. Another senior, Michael Usa, was limited to 19-2/3 innings last season due to shoulder problems (Martin said Usa is still being brought along slowly this year), but he threw 39 innings as a sophomore two seasons ago.

In all, Martin said there are nine Warriors on the 15-man roster who can pitch.

Sherando’s coaching staff has taken steps during the offseason and the preseason to make sure the team doesn’t have to rely so heavily on those arms.

While the Warriors averaged over five runs per game in 2018, Sherando as a team batted .302 and had only three players — outfielder Payne Bauer (.358, two home runs, 11 RBIs, 19 runs scored), shortstop Frank Ritter and outfielder/pitcher Tad Dean — hit better than .300. Of that trio, only Bauer is back in 2019.

Martin said the Warriors failed to produce a quality at-bat too many times in situations with a runner in scoring position and less than two outs.

“Even though we’ve been inside, (associate head coach Craig Bodenschatz) and I have added a few things that could actually (address) that a little bit, or work on it, but naturally you’ve gotta see it executed outside in practice situations,” Martin said. “But we’ve added some things that we’ve been doing in the cage that could hopefully lend to being more successful with that.”

Much of the Warriors’ improvement in run-scoring chances rest on a better approach at the plate, Martin said.

“If they’d just be patient, get a good pitch to hit, not try to do too much — we’ll take a five-hop grounder in the five-and-a-half hole in that situation,” Martin said. “We have been doing certain drills to try to help get that mindset.”

Sherando has plenty of experience to build around, with six players returning who have seen significant playing time at the varsity level.

A veteran outfield will include Bauer, senior speedster Nick Mazza and Entsminger, who has been Sherando’s primary catcher — and occasional outfielder — in past seasons but won’t see any action behind the plate this spring, Martin said.

Usa and fellow senior Jack Duvall will again man first and second base, respectively, but the left side of Sherando’s infield will look a bit different after the graduations of four-year starters Ritter and Pearce Bucher. The latter was limited to just seven games in 2018 due to injury, however, and Tinsman saw plenty of action at third base in Bucher’s absence.

“Last year when Pearce got hurt, Jared Tinsman filled in there and did an admirable job defensively,” Martin said. “He made some really nice defensive plays. His hitting wasn’t there yet. He’s worked a lot on it. His hitting looks like it’s improved considerably.”

Martin added that sophomore James Harris will take over at short.

“He showed a good glove in JV,” Martin said. “He made some really nice plays, so we’re hoping he’ll just relax and settle in, just make all the routine plays and make a few exceptional ones, then we’ll be OK.”

Sherando’s coaches are taking the same approach — potentially sacrificing batting average for dependable defense — at catcher. Martin said sophomore Andrew Plunkett, who saw sparse varsity action last season due to injuries at the position, figures to handle most of the duties behind the plate, adding that junior Owen Even, whom he called a “hustler and a scrapper,” is in the mix for playing time as well.

“In (Plunkett’s) short stint with us, he really impressed us with his ability to frame pitches and block pitches,” Martin said of last season. “He’s worked much more on his arm strength and we feel defensively, at least, he’s gonna do a solid job back there.”

Sherando opens the season on Monday at Woodgrove, a game that was originally scheduled to be played in Stephens City.

Martin said the Warriors haven’t dwelt on the bitter end to the 2018 season, when a three-win Handley team handed them a loss in their first game of the Class 4 Northwestern District tournament. Of this season’s district race, Martin said he expects it to be “very competitive and very balanced.”

“We were checking the rosters the other day and almost every team’s bringing back two quality pitchers,” he said. “…With the quality of pitching that’s gonna be in the district this year, I think whichever team plays a combination of the best defense and timely hitting, run production, not leaving runners in scoring position, are gonna be the ones that separate from the pack.”

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