By William / www.mcpherson-county-ks.com
LINDSBORG – After a disappointing 7-14 season in 2021, the Smoky Valley baseball program will look to regain winning ways under first-year head coach Dalton Eastep in 2022.
Eastep will be working with a team that loses just three seniors (Ty Miller, Brandon Malm, and Karter Adam) from last season’s team while having the opportunity to work again with 10 players that earned varsity experience in 2021.
“I do know that this team had a ton of fight in them during some tough situations in 2021,” noted Coach Eastep. “Of the seven wins, three were comeback victories over Pratt, Hillsboro, and Lyons. They started three sophomores in 2021 that had missed their entire freshman season due to the Covid Pandemic.”
Eastep plus his assistants Kelly Dauer and Darren Heitschmidt will have a returning first-team All-Central Kansas League honoree in junior Kade Blanchat to continue building the team around. All Blanchat did as a sophomore was lead the team in batting (.385), hits (25), runs scored (16), runs batted in (21), stolen bases (8) and slugging percentage (.538) while recording 43 strikeouts when on the mound.
Among the four other returning starters will be seniors George Moore, a catcher/pitcher, and Trayton Miller, an outfielder/pitcher, as well as juniors Nolan Dauer at shortstop, and Trevor Jones, another player that will be either pitching or playing in the outfield.
Three juniors looking to fill some of the openings in the starting lineup will be Ethan Able, Austin Sharp, and Braxton House. Both Able and House can pitch with Able also playing the infield while House and Sharp have been key utility players so far in their Viking careers.
One sophomore that Eastep put praises on was third baseman/pitcher Nolan Moore when he said, “Nolan (Moore) didn’t get much time as a freshman last year, but he has really grown into his body while his arm has gotten stronger which means he is going to be a key piece on the mound going forward.”
Finding solid roles and positions for last season star utility players like House, Sharp, Able, and Grant Kearn will go a long way toward the success of the 2022 season.
When talking about the most important weakness to fill, Eastep mentioned, “We are not super deep when it comes to varsity players though we have a great group of youngsters with amazing early practice attitudes that will get a lot of experience on the junior varsity in 2022. We will also need some more experience at the plate as most of our starters for 2022 will only have one year of high school baseball under their belts.”
“Pitching should be a huge point of emphasis this season,” continued Coach Eastep. “Kade (Blanchat) and George (Moore) had solid years with strong finishes to the season last year. Both have come a long way since then and are looking really good during practices. Trayton (Miller), Trevor (Jones), and Nolan (Moore) should find a lot of success within the system as well. In addition to those five, we hope to get solid relief work from Braxton (House), Ethan (Able), and possibly Austin (Sharp).”
Concluding his pre-season reflections, Eastep finished by saying, “Another strength is going to be our aggressive mindset. This group has a ton of energy, and they don’t take mistakes too harshly. They are ready to be the most aggressive team on the diamond on a nightly basis. As this being my first year as a head coach, if I can ask anything from this group it’s that we look to build an aggressive mindset and a culture that helps build our program from our youth teams on up. I have been extremely impressed with our attitudes and willingness to be coached early on.”
With Smoky Valley playing in the highly competitive Central Kansas League, Pratt and Hesston will both return a ton of talent from last season while the coaching staff has added Southeast of Saline to their schedule as a non-league game and they are very well-coached with a great culture, it will be a tough but good team to play.
The Viking baseball program opens the 2022 season on the road at Nickerson on Tuesday, March 29 before going to Southeast of Saline on Friday, April 1.
(William is a free-lance writer covering McPherson County Activities – he can be reached at email@example.com)