The St. James baseball team is gearing up for their second season under head coach Shannon Snitker and there is a lot to be excited about.
The Tigers are coming off of a 14-10 season where they finished in second in the Four Rivers Conference with a 6-1 record. They also earned the second seed in their District before being upset in the first round by a conference rival, St. Clair. More importantly, the Tigers will bring back almost everyone from last year's young team, which should lead to even more success in 2017.
"I thought we had a real solid season last year. We were pretty young, we graduated three seniors last year, two of which were in the starting lineup, so the rest of the team, I'm getting everybody back," said coach Snitker. "Everybody but one pitcher is returning and the pitcher that I lost as a senior was a reliever, so I'll have all of my starting pitching back. The infield should be put together. I lost my centerfielder, who led off for us last year, and then our right fielder, who I think was second on the team in RBIs and had a decent batting average and played decent in the field for us. I'm looking forward to a couple of young guys stepping up for us this year and then just a majority of the returners just having another year of varsity experience under their belts because we had several, I guess, inexperienced varsity players who should have one year of varsity experience under their belts, so that should help our record this year, I'm hoping."
That extra year of experience will help out in a variety of ways. The Tigers have now gotten a taste for a lot of different scenarios, but the most important thing for Snitker is that his players are a year older.
"I think that's going to be as big of a help as anything, just the maturity level. Body maturity. Just being bigger, stronger and faster than they were last year," said coach Snitker. "They put in some work, but just the physical development of a high school kid."
St. James' biggest asset this year is pitching. The two seniors on this years' team will be their top two pitchers, Justin Marcee and Evan Grayson. They also have a slew of juniors that they can lean on to toe the rubber, including Drew Bouse and Gunnar Seams, who spent time in the rotation last year, along with Alex Evans, Ty Lewis, Nick Wilson and Michael Higginbotham. With the new pitching rules for pitch counts, the more arms the better.
"I have eight arms that I'm confident in throwing into a varsity baseball game, so I would assume that's as good as anybody around," said coach Snitker. "I'm really excited about that and, like I said, they did a pretty good job of that. Most of those kids got experience last year even through six of the eight were sophomores that got varsity experience on the mound. Then Evan and Justin, who are seniors coming back who did a really good job on the mound and they're just gonna be that much better. I have full confidence in them. They know they game well and they're gonna come out and play pretty well, I have a feeling."
But the Tigers do have some holes to fill, particularly in the outfield. Two of last year's seniors started in right and center and Snitker is still working on who will fill some of those gaps.
"Right field is honestly kind of up in the air, there's probably three names there. I'm hoping one of them steps up and makes my job easier as a coach. Andrew Branson, who's a freshman, has looked real good. He handles the bat well and can play anywhere really, infield, outfield, whatever we need him to do. Andrew, Jace Dodson and Tyler Teague, those three are probably going to be the ones fighting for that job," said Snitker. "And then last year as a freshman Jaden Roark played left field for me, but he's really fast and did a good job for me at the varsity level as a freshman, so I'm probably gonna move him to center. There's a couple of kids again, Michael Higginbotham, he plays infield and outfield and Alex Evans also has looked real good defensively in the outfield in left field, so those five names and Jaden probably in center. If the season started tomorrow it'd probably be Alex Evans, Jaden and then I still don't know in right field, it'll be a game-time decision I guess and we'll see how it works out."
While there are still decisions to be made in the outfield, the infield is pretty much locked down. Grayson, Seams and Lewis are all locked in at third, short and second respectively to open the season. Bouse will be behind the plate when he's not pitching, with Grayson shifting behind the plate for those games. Marcee will start the first game on the mound and will shift into other spots on the infield when he's not on the mound. The main competition on the infield carries over from last season with Zach Koons and Lucas Bahr fighting for time at first.
"Lucas and Zach kinda went back and forth all year last year, I would like one of them to make it easy for me at first base, but we still struggling picking baseballs and things like that," said coach Snitker. "If one of them would take the lead in that role, they would probably get more of the playing time, but it seems one practice one will do really good and the other one would be a little off and then then next practice one of them would do really good and the other would be a little off. They're making that kinda tough on me. Last year, they both got to play quite a bit because Zach usually played the field and Lucas usually hit all the time. I don't know, we'll have to see, with putting a couple of young kids in the outfield, I may need to DH for somebody else so I don't know how that's going to work yet."
The Tigers also have a lot of flexibility on the infield, with several people playing different positions. That's extremely helpful, especially on the infield, because so many of St. James' pitchers play on the infield.
"There's different variations where I can move people around so hopefully the best bats are in the lineup every day. That's gonna be my goal early on to try and score as many runs as we can," said Snitker. "The pitching is gonna do a good job again, so as long are willing to have a little courage and step in front of a baseball to keep it on the infield and make a play, we can be pretty decent."
The one thing coach Snitker says he wants to see take strides this year is the Tiger offense. While they haven't played a game yet, Snitker thinks things are moving in the right direction.
"I have seen a couple of kids (improve offensively). Jaden, who ended up leading off the first few games last year, which might've been a bad job on my part because he was a freshman coming in. I thought he did a good job early in practice and I'm gonna play whoever the best nine is. He struggled a little bit so I moved him down to the nine hole and then I moved our centerfielder who graduated last year into the one hole and he ended up playing really good for us there. I've seen his bat come on. Jaden has improved a bunch, I can see that he's been working at it," said coach Snitker. "Lucas Bahr, who was a freshman again who DHed last year for us, his bat from the two or three times I've thrown BP to him has looked a lot better. He was always really good at the inside pitch, but I've been working with him away, away, away to see if he can take the ball the other way too to use the whole field. He's made improvements there, so I'm excited about that.
"Gunnar, Evan, Drew Bouse, Ty Lewis, Justin, I know those are guys that I can count on day in and day out, just because they did it last year and I know they played a lot of baseball over the summer and have worked at it. I'm pretty excited about how that can turn out. I don't think that's going to be a big ask to improve the team batting average a little bit because the kids that are gonna be out there have played a lot of baseball since last year and have put the time in to make themselves better. That kinda makes it easier as a coach when you've got kids like that."
When it comes to an offensive strategy, coach Snitker's philosophy is to just do the job at hand. He works to have well-rounded batters who can do everything from bunting a runner over to driving in runs.
"My offensive philosophy baseball-wise is whatever we've gotta do to get the job done. I don't care if you've got Grayson hitting four or five home runs, you've still gotta be able to lay down a bunt whenever you need to move a runner in a tight situation. Basically what I expect out of my guys is to be able to handle the bat so we can do whatever we need to do," said Snitker. "If you need to hit the ball to the right side because you've got a runner at first base and we wanna hit and run, then you need to be able to hit and run. If you need to lay down a bunt and sac somebody over, we need to be able to lay down a bunt. In order to get up on a team one, two, three runs, we're gonna need to play small ball, if you will. Once we get a lead, I'll be a little more lenient and let them swing away and see what they can do that way. That's kinda what we did last year, it worked quite a bit. We had a couple of games that we got handed to us pretty good, but other than that we were in just about every game last year. Just score runs early, put pressure on the opponents. If you've got good arms and can play some defense behind them, they're gonna be the ones with the pressure on them. Then hopefully when you let them swing away, they'll have a little bit more confidence and they'll be a little more easy going at the plate and be able to produce."
One of the bigger changes this season is a shift in the Tigers' District. Coach Snitker said seeing the new District lineup was like seeing what District the basketball team was in over the winter. St. James' District will include Salem, Southern Boone, Blair Oaks, Helias, Sullivan and Owensville. Helias and Salem both won Districts last year and met up in the playoffs.
"That will be a really solid District," said Snitker. "If we can play good at that time of year, which would obviously be your goal as a coach, then if you can win that you should have some confidence going into the next round, because you're have to beat some legit teams. I know Salem and Helias ended up. Salem ended up winning our District last year and going on to playing Helias and played a pretty close game. I don't know if one of those teams ended up in the Final Four, but they ended up going quite a ways. If we can win that District we should be right in the thick of things to move on. That's kind of the goal."
Coach Snitker has high expectations this season and he thinks his kids will be able to live up to those expectations.
"I have high expectations as the coach. Now if I can translate that to the players, that's gonna be what we need to do," said Snitker. "I think they're hungry too, because I think they know that there's some expectation, which I think is good, but I think they're good enough kids to know that it takes work in order to achieve those kinds of things. The core group of guys have been working pretty hard, it's been a while since St. James, I guess this would be our third winning season in a row, but it's been a while since we've been on that side of it for baseball, so I think they'd like to stake their claim. So despite being on a team that only has two seniors, that kinda gets us back on the map a little bit and we've got 14 juniors, so if we can keep everybody happy next year could be another good year, not to look to the future. Those are the kind of thoughts that I'm trying to relay to them, but obviously high expectations."
Snitker continued, "I'm just a firm believer that if you go to practice, you're there for one reason and that's to get better. If you're not doing that, you're getting worse. It's kinda cliche, but that's what I expect and if we can keep everything simple, you know, if I'm at the plate, this is my job, do my job here, then move on and one thing at a time then I think we'll be pretty successful because we've got a good group of guys. That's kinda how we're trying to build on it. Being able to get over a mistake or two, because that's going to happen in the game of baseball too. If you're best hitter is hitting .400, four out of 10 times they're going to be successful at the plate, so how do you bounce back from maybe not being successful at the plate and doing your job in the field and keeping everybody upbeat and have a positive attitude to move on. That's kinda the mindset I've tried to instill in them, it's not going to go perfect every time, but it's how you bounce back when it doesn't."
As far as goals to go along with those expectations, Snitker thinks that the Conference is within reach and that could lead to them making a strong run in Districts.
"I, honestly, would like to win the conference and I think our kids would also," said coach Snitker. "I think Pacific is going to be pretty solid, Union is going to be pretty solid, Sullivan is going to be better than they were last year, so we're going to have to play in order to do that. And District-wise, if we can get a good seed, get into the second or third round, you never know in the game of baseball what could happen there. Hopefully we're peaking at the right time and we can ride the wave there toward the end to maybe do something special. I think we're gonna have a group of kids that if they buy in and really concentrate, we could.
"I feel like there's quite a bit of pressure on me, honestly," added Snitker with a laugh.
The Tigers were originally supposed to play a jamboree on Tuesday, Mar. 14, but that was cancelled due to a scheduling issue. St. James will now open their regular season at Montgomery County on Friday, Mar. 17.