WELLSTON — The Wellston High School baseball team, and second-year head coach Jim Derrow, is hoping to avoid a sophomore jinx.
Spearheaded by a group of sophomores, the Rockets are aiming for another strong season while preserving Wellston’s winning tradition.
Amid a mix of juniors and seniors, this year’s Rocket program is a fountain of youth which appears far from dry.
“We have a lot of kids returning,” said Derrow. “We’re carrying 15 guys right now.”
Last year, bolstered by a top-heavy senior class, the Rockets won two-thirds of their 27 games and shared the Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division championship.
Wellston, along with Alexander and Meigs, all went 8-2 in finishing as tri-champs.
Wellston won twice against Alexander, Meigs took both meetings from the Rockets, and the Spartans swept Meigs to forge the three-way tie.
Wellston nearly captured the Division III sectional championship as well, losing 3-2 at South Point.
Still, the Rockets were able to continue the winning tradition under the first-year mentor Derrow. The longtime boys basketball boss took over the program from 32-year head coach Pat Hendershott.
Hendershott had amassed 530 career victories, a dozen league championships, a lucky 13 sectional titles, and one magical year in 1985 as the state runner-up.
“I really wanted to make sure we kept the tradition,” said Derrow. “We won the league championship the year before (2006), and we felt we had a strong team coming back last year. We worked very hard, and I thought the kids did a terrific job throughout the year of maintaining focus.”
But a large senior class graduated, headlined by ace pitcher Tyler Gill, the TVC-Ohio Defensive MVP.
Gill, a two-time all-league honoree, also made Division III first-team all-district. Gill led the team in innings pitched (49) and strikeouts (43).
Offensively, Gill was third in total hits (29), and led the team in runs batted in (27). He also played first base, and paced the club defensively with 135 putouts.
The other starting pitchers — Casey Molihan and Kevin Lanane — also graduated, as did starting centerfielder L.B. Wilson.
Wilson was second in hits with 32. Molihan played first base when Gill pitched and vice versa.
“Those were three real important losses from last year’s team,” said Derrow. “I thought we hit the ball really well late in the year, and some kids stepped up and hit some home runs for us.”
Derrow, a standout baseball player at both Wellston and the University of Rio Grande, compared his coaching style to that of Hendershott’s.
“We’re maybe a little more aggressive on the bases, and we like to move runners via the bunt,” he said. “We do a lot of that small-ball you call it.”
As for this season, Derrow said he expects his Rockets “to not only hit for average but hit for some power.”
“I think you’ll see that our kids are physically stronger this year, and the middle of our lineup is really strong,” he said. “I think our lineup is pretty solid all the way through. I don’t think we’re ever going to have a four-or-five batter stretch that we shouldn’t be able to put the ball in play. I don’t think we’re going to be a team that strikes out a lot, and I think we’re pretty patient at the plate and has pretty good power in the middle.”
That middle of the lineup consists of senior catcher Zach Fisher, junior shortstop Matt Lockard and sophomore pitcher Ryan Darnell.
Derrow said the trio will serve as the team’s captains.
“Those three are all really solid baseball players,” said Derrow.
Fisher and Lockard, with 33 hits apiece, were all-league last season, and had the top two averages, on-base percentages and slugging percentages on the team.
Lockard was also second-team all-district and Fisher Honorable Mention.
Lockard was second on the team in defensive assists (44), trailing only third baseman Chris Comer, who transferred to Jackson.
Darnell, who played primarily right field last season, is expected to take over as the number one pitcher. He was fourth in innings pitched last season with 25.
Fellow sophomore Jeff Matteson, the returning second baseman, will lead things off.
Matteson will also serve as the team’s closer, as sophomore Cody Wilkett is also expected to pitch along with playing the infield and outfield.
Taking over Molihan’s role is left-handed junior Slone Cales, who can pitch, play first base or man center or right field.
Derrow expects Darnell, Wilkett and Cales to be “three really good starting pitchers for us.”
Darnell and Wilkett are right-handers. The coach also anticipates giving Fisher and Lockard some non-league starts.
“When you have the league games spaced out on Mondays and Thursdays as it is, that is going to give us that ability,” said Derrow. “Once we get into the fourth inning through the seventh inning, after our starters, we have to find somebody for middle relief.”
Another junior is Tyler King, whom Derrow expects to be “a really nice offensive player.”
Lockard, Darnell, Matteson, Wilkett and King are some of the top athletes in the school, as all are three-sport participants.
Cales also plays basketball, as does senior Andy Derrow, a first-time varsity player.
Derrow may pitch along with fellow seniors Levi Ousley, Aaron Sexton and Brody Speraw.
“We actually have about eight pitchers that we feel we can throw out there, depending on the opponent and the situation,” said Coach Derrow.
But the squad’s largest strength is its infield with Lockard, Fisher and Matteson all returning.
Derek Seymour, a sophomore transfer from Vinton County, will assist in the infield once he returns from a knee injury in a month.
Rounding out the roster are senior Tim Scarberry and sophomores Seth Weikert, Jacob Arthur and Jared Norris.
There are some infield positions, depending upon who is pitching, that are interchangeable and will be shuffled around, Derrow explained.
The outfield, on the other hand, is “all brand new no matter who we put out there.”
“That’s something we have to improve on,” said Derrow. “Defensively, in little league, if you weren’t very good, you went to the outfield. That’s not the case now. Outfielders at this level are real important. It’s not that they don’t try, they just haven’t been out there enough yet to get good jumps and good reads and know what bases to throw at yet. But we have some athletes we’re trying to work in out there.”
Indeed, if the Rockets are to challenge the likes of Meigs for their third straight TVC-Ohio championship.
“I think we’re capable of contending for a title again,” said Derrow. “I know Meigs is really good, and I think the rest of the teams are all the same after that, but I don’t think Meigs is that much better than us. I know Meigs has seniors and kids who have won, and probably has the top overall amount of talent back. But we’ve got kids back that won last year and who always have been really good baseball players. I will be very disappointed if we don’t contend again.”
That would be considered a sophomore jinx, which Derrow doesn’t foresee happening.
“I think we’re a team that is going to get better this year,” he said. “With all the sophomores we’re playing, with the eighth-grade class we have in baseball, this could be a dynamic baseball team next year and in two years.”
But, the current focus is on the spring of 2008, which opened on Monday when Wellston welcomed Waterford.