When it comes to all of the 18 baseball teams coach Scott Hoffman has had at Wharton High, last year’s version had the potential to be one of the best.
The Wildcats started out 8-1, with every win but one by four runs or more, outscoring their opponents 73-19. It was a great start.
But then, Covid took hold, and the season, as well as the Wildcats’ hopes for a State championship, faded away.
“When you look back, we thought last year might have been our year,” Hoffman says.
However, thanks to this year’s team, the coach hasn’t had to do much lamenting. The Wildcats picked up right where they left off in 2020 and are 20-4 this season following a 6-2 win over Alonso to send them to the Class 7A, District 7 district championship game this Friday at 7 p.m. against Sickles.
The Wildcats, who win or lose in the 7A-7 final have already clinched a spot in the regional baseball playoffs, will see if they have a deep playoff run in them. They returned most of the starters from last year’s team, the pitching has been better than expected and three of their four losses — including a 6-5 loss to nationally-ranked Jesuit — have only been by a single run.
Hoffman says his squad still hasn’t put together the perfect game — although it does have two no-hitters — and thinks the 2021 Wildcats may be due. He has high hopes for this postseason.
“When we’re trying to think of the teams (we’ve had) that have gone on and done something in the postseason, I’d say we’re right about there (with them),” he says.
Pitching has been a major key. Junior starters Ryan Fry and Evan Chrest are a combined 13-2 with an ERA under 2.00, while senior Jackson Perkins is 5-0 with a 0.89 ERA.
Last month, Fry, a University of Miami commitment, threw what is believed to be the first seven-inning no-hitter in Wharton history, which also happened to be the second of back-to-back 15-strikeout games for the hard-throwing righty. Fry threw a complete game 3-hitter with nine strikeouts against Alonso in the district semifinal.
“Pitching has been the key,” says Hoffman, joking that every Wharton team he thinks will pitch well ends up hitting well, and vice versa. This year is no different, as he thought the hitting would be the team’s primary strength.
And, it hasn’t been bad. Hoffman said one hole to fill this year was developing a swing guy who could play multiple positions, and that turned out to be junior David Limbach, a backup catcher who showed more athleticism than Hoffman originally thought he had. In his utility role, Limbach has played in both the infield and outfield and is fourth on the team with a .343 batting average and tied for third-best with 20 RBI.
That puts him right behind Wharton’s formidable 1-2 punch at the top of the lineup — senior centerfielder and Saint Leo University signee Dylan McDonald and senior shortstop Zach Ehrhard, who is bound for Oklahoma State.
McDonald, who bats leadoff, leads the team with a .410 average, 10 doubles, three home runs, 33 hits and 22 RBI, while Ehrhard is hitting .440 with 12 doubles, three homers and a team-high 24 steals. Ehrhard has gotten hot at the right time the past two weeks, going 10-for-18 with two homers, three doubles and eight RBI.
“I feel like we are definitely a pretty good 1-2 combo,” McDonald says. “When I get on, I know the 2-3-4 guys tend to get me in. And, when we start out quick, we seem to do pretty well.”
In fact, the Wildcats are 15-1 when they score first, with the only loss coming to Jesuit.
The Wildcats also have flexed their muscles this season, with seven different players combining to blast a school record 17 home runs in 24 games.
In the previous five seasons combined, Wharton hit 16 homers in 111 games.
Although the Wildcats have hit well in spurts, Hoffman is still looking for that stretch of offensive consistency — they are averaging nearly nine runs a game during their current 5-game win streak — that will elevate the team to a true playoff contender. If that happens, last year could become even more of a distant memory.
“We had a really good team last year, but is this team better?,” asks McDonald. “I think we kind of flip-flop on that every day. We could have won State last year, can we win State this year? We have a lot of chemistry this year, so it’s possible. Either way, these have been two of the best years Wharton has ever had.”