While most of the area is blanketed in snow, believe it or not, baseball season is right around the corner.
Last season, an experienced Smyrna Eagles baseball team made their way through a successful regular season - going 15-3 overall and clinching the No. 2 overall seed in the DIAA Baseball State Tournament.
With their eyes on a making a push toward a state championship, those hopes were derailed in an opening round loss to No. 15 Sussex Tech.
The loss to the Ravens in the first round of the tournament was hard to swallow for the Eagles, especially for the team’s seniors. Though, heading into this season, Head Coach Mike Henderson and his team are looking forward, not backward.
Smyrna will be without several impact players, including the team’s three captains in Shawn Dulin, Jared Gillis and Ryan Seymour, along with fellow graduates John Barkley and Kalen Wilson.
“There’s no denying that we lost a host of talent from last year’s team - four of the five are competing at the next level,” said Henderson. “I’m optimistic that our younger talent will surprise some people, though, there’s still a lot of innings of experience within our returners.”
All five juniors on last year’s squad are back, including Connor Dulin, Nolan Henderson, Brandt Penuel, Dylan Snow and Zachery Zlock. Also back in the fold are juniors Jeremy Carrow, Nathen Ridgeway, Desmond and Larsen Wilson along with returning sophomore Garrett Casey.
As far as newcomers go, Smyrna has many - all of whom will be competing for playing time according to Coach Henderson.
“Newcomers Andrew Unterreiner, Nevin Bell, Niko Dias, Max Lattomus, Dylan Leager, Caden Naylor and Logan Strickland will compete for playing time and all see their share of innings,” said Henderson.
With the first regular season game still a week away, Henderson and his staff already have a clear idea of how this year’s team will shake out.
The Eagles pitching staff should be a strength this season featuring several returning starters, while they look for depth in the bullpen from some of the team’s newcomers.
“Jeremy and Garrett will lead the pitching staff with Henderson, Snow, Lattomus, Leager and Unterreiner getting their appearances,” Henderson said. “Ridgeway and Penuel could also see some innings.”
Having depth on the mound will be doubly important since this is the first season a new DIAA pitch count rule officially goes into effect. The rule, NFHS Rule 6-2-6, includes several new limitations on pitchers in an effort to give players sufficient periods of rest between appearances.
The DIAA adopted a 105 pitch limit for a player in one day and several requirements on mandatory rest for pitchers depending upon the number of pitches thrown in any given appearance. Pitchers throwing 26-50 pitches require one day of rest, 51-80 pitches requires two days of rest, while 81-105 pitches requires three days of mandatory rest.
“The new DIAA pitch count rule will tax some teams who aren’t deep in that area,” Henderson said. “We should only get better on the hill as we get deeper into the season.”
With some extra strain on the pitching staff, solid team defense will be paramount for Smyrna or any other team hoping to have success this season. Luckily for Smyrna, they have talent returning behind the plate ready to manage the pitching staff and some responsible defensive players behind those pitchers.
“Penuel, who’s been a fixture behind the plate the past two seasons and Henderson in centerfield will lead the team defensively,” Henderson said. “Zlock will be called upon to fill in any gaps as the team’s utility player.”
Keeping opponents off the scoreboard is one key to winning games, but every team needs to score runs to win as well. Having a reliable offense is crucial, especially playing within the highly competitive Henlopen Conference.
During the preseason, Coach Henderson has been encouraged by what he’s seen on the offensive end of things.
“Offensively, I like where we’re at with a good mix of athletes who can get on base and others with some surprising power,” Henderson said.
While nothing is set in stone yet, the team Smyrna has assemble should once again challenge for the Henlopen Conference crown with aspirations of making last year’s early first round exit just a memory.
“There remains a couple of unknowns as we just selected the team, but we should be in the mix for the North championship again this season,” said Henderson. “Our success will be based on the new players stepping up and contributing early because our difficult schedule doesn’t leave us much room for error.”
Smyrna kicks off the 2017 regular season with three-straight road games.
On opening day, Wednesday, March 22, the Eagles will travel to take on Indian River (4:15 p.m.) before another road game downstate Friday, March 24 at Delmar (4:15 p.m.).
After a road contest against 2015 state champion Appoquinimink, Tuesday, March 28 (3:45 p.m.), the Eagles open up their home schedule Friday, March 31 hosting Cape Henlopen (4:15 p.m.).