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No one could have blamed L.W. Barnes if he had scheduled Senior Night for Opening Day.
A year ago, Anderson County got hot at the right time to make the state tournament for the third time in nine seasons. The turning point was the night Anderson said good-bye to its senior class.
On Senior Night, Anderson rallied from a large deficit to defeat Scott County8-6. It sparked an eight-game winning streak that took the Bearcats through the 30th District and Eighth Region tournaments. Over that time, the Bearcats did not have a single one-run game and won by an average of 4.5 runs per game.
It all ended when eventual state champion Pleasure Ridge Park, ranked in the top five nationally, defeated the Bearcats in successive games in the first round of the state tournament.
Struggling at 13-15 before Senior Night, the Bearcats finished at 21-17.
Barnes might have looked like a late-season genius, but he smiles in trying to explain the surge. “I don’t know what happened,” Barnes says. “We made some substitutions that night and things just clicked. We had just blown a big lead against Franklin County the night before (a 10-5 loss in eight innings).
“When we got to the district tournament, that group was as focused as any team I have ever seen.”
Now the question is what do the Bearcats do for an encore. They are a slight favorite to repeat their regional championship, but the gap between them and arch-rival Shelby County is razor thin. Oldham County and North Oldham are also expected to be in the thick of things.
Barnes, now in his 11th year at his alma mater, believes his team will be a model for the old adage that pitching and defense win championships.
“We should have good enough pitching to keep us in ballgames and our defense should be outstanding,” he said. “We are going to need two or three sticks to step up to produce some runs.”
It starts 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate.
“Our pitching staff is deep,” Barnes said. “We don’t have that hammer. There is no ‘shut-down’ pitcher in the group but we have a lot of good ones.”
Pitching coach Chris Copenhaver adds, “It will be hard to replace (now graduated) Ryan Pike and Aaron Burkhead mainly because of their experience and competitiveness they gave us on the mound, but overall, I think we have a chance of being a better staff due to the depth.”
The 10 to 12 pitchers at Barnes’ disposal is a high number in high school. The fact that the staff boasts five southpaws makes it even more versatile.
Senior lefty Daniel Dadisman could emerge as the ace if he fully recovers from last season’s arm problems, and classmate Jacob Brown was impressive at times last year. Another left-hander, junior Kyle DeLong, blossomed last season and threw extremely well in the post-season. After a strong off-season, he is also expected to get some big starts. Daniel Goodlett and Graham Young also throw from the left side.
Jeremy Turpin and Luke Hawkins both saw action from the right side last year and Hunter Coffey has begun to put things together. “He could easily be one of our top three or four pitchers by the end of the year,” Copenhaver said.
Copenhaver said three youngsters could also be in the mix, including Michael Harley and Josh Brown. Freshman Steven Watts “could be special. This kid is a freshman and is already consistently throwing in the low 80s. He has a lot of work to do on his mechanics and accuracy but he is coming around.”
And for that hammer, Copenhaver says the Bearcats might still have him in right-hander Jacob Russell, who did not join the team until Monday because of his time with the Bearcat basketball team. It will take some time for his arm to be in shape to pitch but Copenhaver says Russell “could be a shut-down pitcher, especially in the region.”
The Bearcat defense could be air-tight as the entire infield remains intact. Turpin, the shortstop, is a pre-season all-region pick and has been listed as one of the top 50 prospects in Kentucky. Hawkins, the third baseman who will move to shortstop when Turpin is on the hill, “is the best infielder I have ever coached,” Barnes says. “His range and fundamentals are phenomenal.”
Second baseman Jordan Alves “has all the potential in the world,” according to Barnes, while Russell will be at first when not pitching.
So deep is the Anderson infield that Barnes says backup T.J. Drury, a senior, is one of the most valuable members of the team because his versatility gives Barnes plenty of options on moving people around.
The outfield has just one returnee, Jacob Brown, but Barnes said five or six players are vying for the other spots. Matt Fogle and Neal Wells should share time behind the plate.
Barnes does not downplay the fact that the region’s coaches have pegged his team as the one to beat. He notes the nature of high school baseball that requires players to be able to play several posistions. “We have 13 or 14 players that we can move around and not be hurt,” he said.
Offensively, Turpin, Alves, Hawkins, Brown and Russell have proven to be hitters at the varsity level. Barnes says Coffey will swing a hefty stick too. “The top six of our order is solid,” Barnes notes. “This group is capable of pounding the ball.”
To do so, the Bearcats will have to come through against what Barnes calls “the toughest schedule in Anderson County history. We have 23 games against teams that won 20 games last year.”
“Always,” Barnes smiles.
But he is confident his team knows what it takes to win. Turpin and Russell were playing in the basketball Sweet 16 Thursday night and have practiced little. Barnes expected both to be in the lineup in Monday’s opener against Mercer County.
“They will get their practice in games,” Barnes says with a grin.
Now, just making it to the state is not enough.
“Our goal is to always advance,” he said. “That is the only way to take our program to the next level. Our hope is to beat a Louisville school and be in the final eight at Applebee’s Park.”
Anderson might just have the pitching and defense to do just that.
E-mail John Herndon at firstname.lastname@example.org.