Times Sports Editor
The Clay City baseball team has reached the sectional championship game the past two seasons before falling to the Shakamak Lakers, who have won six straight titles.
This year, coach Ryan Swearingen and his team are looking to break through to the next level.
The Eels finished with an even .500 record at 12-12 last year, but the foundation was laid for this year's team to take another step forward for a program that hasn't tasted sectional success in quite awhile.
Six seniors are on the roster for the Eels, including three-year starting catcher, Matt Vansickle, which Swearingen feels is a good start to a successful season.
"He's so valuable back there for us," said Swearingen. "He's so much ahead of the other guys at the position that sometimes you take it for granted when he's back there."
Vansickle had some success at the plate as well for the Eels, hitting .297 in 33 at-bats.
The Eels return five members of their starting lineup from last year's sectional game after Andre Hayes, Tim Shaw and Austin Vansickle all graduated and Justin Kearney moved to Georgia.
Second baseman Ben Dickey returns for his senior year and after pasting opposing pitchers to the tune of a .458 average with 26 runs scored and 20 RBI, he'll be counted on for the same type of production level.
"Well it's nice to have the type of hitting back with Ben," mentioned Swearingen. He added, a bit tongue-in-cheek, "I'm hoping he can have that kind of year again."
Dickey also gives Clay City its best returning stolen base threat after racing to 17 steals last year.
Senior Kyle Grassick returns after being one of the team's top pinch-runners last year and Chris Gehrke returns after sitting out last year.
"Chris is a senior and we're expecting him to help pitch for us this year," said Swearingen.
The pitching staff, which has been a bit shallow in past seasons, is enjoying some rare depth in the early stages of the year.
Junior Ryne Hayes returns after pitching in the sectional last year as the No. 1 hurler.
He'll be expected to continue to develop along with senior Paul Aleman who got varsity time last year and sophomore D.J. Newton and freshman Tyler Bridewater will see action too.
"Ryne is going to be back as our No. 1 and D.J. and Paul will have to handle a lot of the workload," said Swearingen. "We've got some other guys and we'll see what they can do. Our pitching and defense is further along than it was last year at this point."
That is good news for Clay City fans who will get to see their Eels take the field against county rival Northview in Brazil tonight at 5 p.m.
The rest of the infield likely shapes up to have Kennedy at first base and junior Kyler Rhodes at third or perhaps Aleman.
Shorstop is a question mark after Kearney's move, but the infield bats will be important in this team's success.
Kennedy was a .257 hitter last year with a pair of homeruns, tied for the team lead with Dickey and the graduated Hayes.
Rhodes hit at a .250 clip with a .415 on-base-percentage and he scored 17 times for the Eels who scored just under six runs per game last season.
Evans tops the outfield hitters with a .355 average from his leftfield spot with 20 runs scored and 19 RBI.
The remaining two outfield spots will also need to be replaced following Shaw and Vansickle's graduation.
"We're going to have to have some guys step up to replace those four bats," said Swearingen about filling the offensive vacuum. "Our big question mark will be offensively who is going to step up?"
The Eels add six freshman to the mix this season and have 21 players on the roster to this point.
Gus Camp is another senior who could contribute after hitting .278 for the JV squad in 18 at-bats.
The sophomore class includes Tyler Jenkins, Landry Moss and Ricky Godfrey.
Moss hit .250 at the JV level last year.
Swearingen admitted that Shakamak is again the team to chase after reaching the state finals last year, but also added that North Central and Linton will feed solid squads as well.
"There's a lot of teams with new coaches in the conferences," said Swearingen. "Obviously Shakamak is the team to beat, but our goal is to reach their level."
Clay City baseball schedule
|Today||at Northview||5 p.m.|
|Thu. April 3||vs. Eastern||4:30 p.m.|
|Sat. April 5||at Sullivan (DH)||10 a.m.|
|Mon. April 7||vs. N.Daviess||4:30 p.m.|
|Tue. April 8||at N. Central||4:30 p.m.|
|Thu. April 10||at WRV||4:30 p.m.|
|Tue. April 15||vs. N.Central||4:30 p.m.|
|Thu. April 17||at Linton||4:30 p.m.|
|Sat. April 19||vs. Turkey Run||11 a.m.|
|Mon. April 21||at Vin. Rivet||5 p.m.|
|Tue. April 22||vs. Bloomfield||4:30 p.m.|
|Thu. April 24||at Rockville||4:45 p.m.|
|Fri. April 25||at Eminence||4:30 p.m.|
|Mon. April 28||vs. Shakamak||4:30 p.m.|
|Thu. May 1||vs. Union||4:30 p.m.|
|Mon. May 5||vs. R.Parke||4:30 p.m.|
|Tue. April 6||vs. Cloverdale||4:30 p.m.|
|Tue. May 13||vs. Owen Valley||4:30 p.m.|
|Thu. May 15||Wash. Catholic||5 p.m.|
|Tue. May 20||vs. S.Putnam||4:30 p.m.|
|Mon. May 26||at Sectional||TBA|