Baseball Preview: USHERING IN A NEW ERA
By BRANDON HURLEY
Each swing, pitch, ground ball and heart-stopping steal will have a strict purpose this summer.
It’s the minute details that first-year Greene County head coach John Hupp feels will make the ultimate difference as the Rams turn toward the future.
The 2007 Jefferson-Scranton graduate took the reins of the Ram program a few months back and immediately began implementing his own style. A smart, disciplined and advantageous ball club is the top priority.
It’s been a bit of a transition, but Hupp feels his guys are up to the task as their season got underway Thursday, May 24.
“I think they’ve come a long way understanding situations, especially when it comes to hitting,” the former Simpson College outfielder said. “A big part for them is figuring out when and how to be productive even when you’re out.
Moving the runner up, at the very minimum, early in the inning or hitting a fly ball to the outfield with a runner on third.”
Hupp’s philosophy goes beyond just simply being an above average hitter. The batter must take into account the situation, manipulating the moment to better suit the team. No swings just to make contact, no pitch just to get a strike. Meticulous preparation is a key cog in the machine. Greene County will trot out a measured offense, while staying aggressive on the base paths, hoping to take advantage of every moment. Keeping the defense on their heels is vital.
“(We want to look for) pitches to be productive. Even if you don’t get get a hit, you are at least productive and scored a run or moved a runner around,” the coach said. “Things like that along with drilling fundamentals into them so that we can push things run around the bases as much as possible. Stealing, hitting and running and then bunting plenty to advance runners and put pressure on that defense.”
Hupp grabs the reins of a squad fresh off the first postseason in Greene County High School history – the Rams knocked off ADM in district play last July – while capturing their first winning record since 2009 (14-13).
Greene County will lean on talented pitching staff to build early momentum, returning two of their top three hurlers from a season ago.
As a staff last summer, the Rams compiled a 2.44 ERA (which was third in the HOIC), striking out 140 batters in 181 innings. They maintained an opponents batting average of .189, surrendering 30 home runs in 27 games.
“I think the depth of pitching that we have (is a strength),” Hupp said. “I knew we had a few, but I (now) think we have five to six guys that could be productive guys, which is tremendous for high school.”
Senior Ben Wilkins and junior Austin Delp combined for eight wins in 2017 but their collective ERA is where they truly made noise.
Delp maintained a 1.64 ERA in six starts along with an opponent’s batting average of .173, the lowest on the team.
Wilkins won a team-high six games in 10 starts, tossing 56 innings with a 2.24 ERA, striking out 54 batters. Wilkins was seventh in the conference in strikeouts. He maintained a .186 opponent batting average.
The duo is an athletic pair as well, bringing several different talents to the table. Delp can play a variety of positions in the field while Wilkins will lead the Ram offense as one of their top hitters. He produced 12 RBI and drew a team-high 15 walks.
“(Wilkins) throws hard and he’s one of our better hitters. He’ll be a valuable asset.
Delp led the Rams in RBI with 21 while departed Ram Trey Tucker led the team in batting last spring with a .400 average, knocking home 20 runs to go with a team-high 11 doubles.
“(Delp) will be tremendous on the field,” Hupp said. “He can play anywhere which is a very valuable asset to have. He’ll be a good utility guy.”
Tom Gannon is back for his third straight season behind the plate, and is the top returning hitter with a batting average of .297, striking out just three times in 91 at bats. He threw out eight runners last summer, the second best mark in the Heart of Iowa Conference.
“As a senior, (Gannon) is super valuable as a catcher,” Hupp said. “He has a very good arm.”
The Rams picked up a win in the season-opener Thursday, May 24, knocking off Perry, 2-1. Wilkins threw a gem, striking out nine in a complete game, two-hit victory. Tyler Teeples collected a pair of hits while Wade Adcock blasted a solo home-run for the go-ahead run. Bryce Hoyle also tallied an RBI in the victory.
Greene County dropped a 3-1 decision to Saydel the following night (May 25) in Des Moines. The Rams mustered just three hits and no RBI in the loss. Delp threw six innings, striking out six, allowing just two earned runs.
With a solid, veteran core back and a first-year head coach at the helm, the Rams have high expectations, aiming at a top-tier finish in the Heart of Iowa Conference and perhaps two or three postseason wins.
“We are expecting to be well above and beyond a winning season, if we have the right mindset, with the pitching and the hitting combined,” Hupp said. “I think we will be a dangerous team with the talent we have and we are expecting to win some postseason games.
We’ve got a young team that is talented and if they believe that they are, we can be very dangerous.”
Hupp replaces long-time head coach Mark Sawhill, after having played under him as a former Ram. It was surreal Tuesday night as the Greene County home slate season got underway, Hupp said. The Rams played Tuesday night in Jefferson against Coon Rapids-Bayard.
“(It’ll be) strange. I remember the first day of practice being strange,” the anxious coach said. “It’s me and my show. I’ve done that before (at Woodbine) but it’s definitely different when it’s the field that you’ve grew up and played on.
Stepping onto the field for the first time and going up the third baseline the first time, it will be definitely be a strange feeling, but I’ll love it and hope to be able to do it for many, many years.”
HOIC outlook: North Polk comes in as the favorite, ranked No. 10 in the preseason polls.
North Polk’s Collen Parkins returns for his junior year as the top pitcher, fanning 77 batters in just 51 innings, maintaining a sparkling 1.35 ERA. Four of the Heart of Iowa’s top five pitchers were seniors last year.
North Polk returns their top three pitchers from a season ago, which led them to having the league’s best staff with a 2.11 ERA and 226 strikeouts in 228 innings. Then junior Jake Johnson was 7-0 with a 0.80 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 52 innings.
Saydel and North Polk tied for the conference championship a year ago with matching 13-3 records.
Saydel’s Craig Garrison is the top returning hitter, producing 48 hits for a .414 average a year ago, knocking in 46 RBI, the second best mark in 2017. Five of the top seven hitters return from a year ago.
The Eagles led the league with 316 runs scored and 14 home runs. Greene County finished sixth with a 6-9 record.
Class 3A outlook: 2016 state champion and 2017 runner-up Harlan is yet again one of the teams to beat, entering the IA Baseball preseason rankings at No. 2. Defending champion Davenport Assumption slides in at the top spot. Assumption scored 365 runs a year ago while smacking 12 home runs with a team average of .371, though their top six hitters and top two pitchers all graduated last year.
Harlan scored 355 runs and blasted 15 home runs to a tune of a .342 team batting average, but welcomes back it’s top hitter, Ryan Doran, who hit .442 with 50 RBI and six home runs.
The top returning pitcher is Webster City’s Max Hackbarth, who struck out 103 batters in just 54 innings, holding on to a sparkling 0.52 ERA.
Carlisle (3), Bishop Heelan (4), Waverly-Shell Rock (5), Oskaloosa (6), Marion (7), Solon (8) and Boone (9) round out the remaining top 10.
The 3A district tournament opens play on July 13. The 2018 state tournament is set for July 23-28 at Principal Park in Des Moines.