By Matt Wiley
The “Ole Ball Game” has returned to both Freedom and Wharton high schools, both of which are hoping to gather some steam as each team’s focus shifts to finishing strong and getting prepared for the upcoming District playoffs.
After a successful season in 2012, when the Wildcats finished up being ranked fifth in the state with a 21-9 record and making it all the way to the Regional finals, the 2013 ‘Cats are doing their best to win as many games as possible while staying healthy, which has proven to be a challenge a little more than halfway through the season.
“We’re a work in progress,” says Wharton head baseball coach Scott Hoffman. “This season hasn’t exactly gone the way we’d hoped it would, following last season. We thought we had a real shot, but we’ve been battling injuries all season and we’re going to try our best to salvage the rest of it.”
Hoffman’s Wildcats were 6-8 at our press time, but hoping to squeeze out a win against the Newsome High Wolves for the team’s first Class 8A, District 7 win this season after five straight losses.
Besides injuries, Hoffman says inconsistency has plagued Wharton since game one. “We haven’t had a set lineup since our first game,” Hoffman says. “We’re finally starting to get back to normal.”
However, if not for the hard work of seniors Ryan Lawson and Mike Gonzalez, Hoffman says the team could be in even worse shape.
“Lawson’s done a tremendous job of swinging the bat,” Hoffman explains. Lawson currently is batting .349, with 12 runs, and a team-leading 4 home runs, 6 doubles and 16 RBIs. Normally a pitcher, Lawson has been playing first base for the ‘Cats for the first time, but Hoffman says he is doing a good job.
Gonzalez also has been helping to keep Wharton moving forward, making a difference both at the plate and on the mound. Although only 2-4 as a pitcher, MaxPreps.com lists Gonzalez as having an outstanding 1.99 ERA. At the plate, he’s batting .275, with Wharton’s only other 2 HRs and 13 RBIs.
The strengths of these two players, as well as the team as a whole will be the determining factor come the District playoffs in April.
“There’s not one team that is less powerful than the others in our District,” says Hoffman. “They’re all good. If you’re not playing really well, you’re going to get beat.”
Despite a less impressive record than last season, Wharton does hold the “New Tampa crown,” defeating coach Mason Woodside’s Freedom Patriots 13-0 in the second game of the season.
And that was only the beginning for the Class 7A-9 Patriots, who also haven’t had the smoothest season so far, with a 3-11 record, 1-4 in the District, at our press time.
Despite standout batting from junior P/1B Austin Atkinson (.team-leading .350 BA and 11 RBIs), junior shortstop Andrew Anderson (.349, and a team-best 15 hits) and senior 3B Johnny Keiger — who is batting a .314, with a team-high 11 runs), Freedom is having a tough time keeping it together this season, following a decent 15-10 record in 2012.
However, when the Patriots win, they win, with two of the team’s three victories resulting in blowouts of nine runs or more. The other was a tight, one-run win over District contender Spoto in February.
Woodside could not be reached for comment at our press time.
Patriots Girls Showing
Although the Freedom Patriots varsity baseball team may be struggling to keep afloat this season, the Freedom girls softball team has been on a tear, with a sterling 11-1 record at our press time and still undefeated in the five Class 7A-9 games played so far.
“We’ve had a great run,” says Patriots coach Autum Hernandez. “We’ve been extremely competent hitting the ball. We’ve really been focusing on offense this season.”
Hernandez attributes some of the team’s success to having so many returning players from the previous season.
“Some of these girls have been playing for me for three or four seasons,” she explains. “They know the system.”
Also a factor, she says, has been the addition of two new pitchers, providing some relief to sophomore Grace Street, who pitched every game last season. Hernandez says that the added relief allows Street to pitch more confidently at the plate. Currently, Street is 4-0, with a 1.54 ERA, 17 strikeouts and 6 BBs in 27 IP.
New pitcher Kaitlin Hall, a senior, currently is 4-1, with a 1.33 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 31.2 IP. She also boasts a spectacular .528 BA, 19 hits and a team-high 16 RBIs.
And the plate is where the Patriots continue to strike. Freshman catcher Maddy Hall has been making a name for herself at the plate, batting .525, with 18 runs and 21 hits, both leading the team.
Ironically, the Patriots only loss came at the hands of the Wildcats on February 15. “They’re a great team,” says Hernandez. “They just outplayed us that night. Right now I just want to keep up the momentum we’ve built. I was worried that spring break might slow us down, but we beat Steinbrenner 8-0 on March 19, so I’m not that worried anymore.”
Across the New Tampa Gateway Bridge and up Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd., the Wharton softball girls are off to a strong 8-2 start, 3-2 in Class 8A-7 play.
“I’m pleased with the girls,” says Wharton head coach Ashlee Cappucci. “We’ve really come together as a family. Every game is a battle, but we’re a very competitive group. Our losses have all been by small margins.”
Following a 16-9 2012 season, the ‘Cats are looking toward the District tournament. “I tell the girls, ‘Every time you play, you have to prove a point,’” Cappucci explains. “We’re in a tough District. Anyone can win on any night.”
Although her whole team is playing well, Cappucci says that she is especially impressed with sophomore pitcher Mak Dooley, who has 81 Ks in 59 IP and a 0.51 ERA and also is contributing at the plate, with a team-high 3 2Bs and 5 RBIs.
Cappucci says that Erica Matich, a sophomore SS, also is playing extremely well, batting .385 with a HR, as is soph. Meagan Bell (.304 with a team-high 7 RBIs and a HR).
As the season presses on, Cappucci says that preparation is key. “I’m just trying to keep them energized and moving forward,” she explains. “We’re studying teams and going into each game with a plan. These girls really know how to pick each other up during games and stay positive. We’re really growing as a team.”