This year could be more of the same, only with a more experienced pitching staff.
Though Pope may not want to endure another grueling playoff journey, like the one it had last year, having more seasoned pitchers may ease the stress level.
Pope outscored its opposition 318-218 last season and went 10-3 in postseason play, but of those 10 wins, three came in extra innings. The Greyhounds had to rally from late-game deficits or ties four times — including the first game of the championship series with Greenbrier — and three of the five series wins were decided in three games.
“The offense carried us last year,” Pope coach Jeff Rowland said. “We were averaging nine runs a game. That got us out of a lot of predicaments. Pitching came along last year and did what they needed to do and got us big wins.”
Senior pitchers Stephen Skruck and Patrick Wiseman are returning to the mound after a full season of being in the starting rotation. Junior Braden Zarbnisky, who started the first game of last year’s championship series, is another strong candidate for a spot in the starting rotation.
Skruck and Wiseman are a year older after keeping their ERAs under 3.00 last season. They also contributed at the plate, where Skruck hit .406 with six home runs and 33 RBIs and Wiseman had a .346 average with 24 RBIs.
Senior outfielder Mason Shiflett is Pope’s top returning hitter with a .439 average.
Senior outfielder Jacob Culberson can also swing the bat, hitting three home runs last season.
But with the season having just started, Pope is still sorting a few things out — one of which is finding a way to replace Nathaniel Lowe, who is now at Mercer after hitting .469 last year and totaling a team-record 51 RBIs.
“We’re still trying to figure out pieces and where to go with them,” Rowland said. “Lowe’s going to be hard to replace, but I like our lineup, and we should produce runs.”
Pope’s Region 7AAAAA rival Kell is beginning a new era with first-year coach Keith Brown, who succeeded his retired mentor, Donnie English.
With Brown at the helm, the Longhorns are looking to secure another playoff berth after making it to the second round last year, but they may have to do it with a revamped pitching staff.
Kell graduated five pitchers will have to rely on younger and more inexperienced throwers. Brown said the Longhorns’ strength is fielding, which should help the young pitchers develop.
Allatoona missed the playoffs last season despite posting its lowest ERA and highest batting average in team history. The Buccaneers just didn’t get enough clutch hits to finish in the top four of Region 5AAAAA.
With a strong pitching staff anchored by South Carolina signee Clarke Schmidt, the Buccaneers have a shot of finishing in the top four of the region in 2014.
Senior pitcher Cooper Murphy, who signed with Emmanuel, and sophomore Grayson Harbin are also a part of the starting rotation, and Allatoona should have a strong bullpen behind four lefties and four righties.
The challenge Allatoona may face this season is being in a region full of strong arms.
“This is a pitching-rich region,” Allatoona coach Keith Hansen said. “It’s going to come down to who’s got the deeper arms. I think everyone can match up, but it’s going to be the depth on the pitching staff.”
Mount Paran Christian graduated the majority of the starters that led the Eagles to the Class A private-school championship series, and they may have difficulty replacing hitters Ryan Murphy, Will Schnure and Matt McKenzie and pitcher Robert Wilson.
Mount Paran, however, does have talent returning behind senior outfielder Andrew Maxwell, senior shortstop Jake Palomaki and junior center fielder Isaac Phillips.