LAPEL — This year, as Matt Campbell enters his first season as head baseball coach at Lapel, he inherits a young team that has graduated several big bats over the last two years. But that fact will not temper the enthusiasm the long-time Pendleton Heights assistant has for this season, nor the expectations he has for this young bunch of Bulldogs.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming, and I’m excited to get my chance. I have high expectations for them. We did lose a lot of offense, but I think our defense is going to step up this year. With the players we have back, I think our defense is going to shine and really highlight our year.”
Dylan Dowden and John Sherwood are the two returning players who played in all 25 games last season. They are two seniors Campbell will be leaning heavily on for offense and defense. Dowden batted .258 last season with five RBI and two doubles, while Sherwood (.188, 10 RBI) is expected to be a stalwart defensively.
“He did slump a little offensively last year,” Campbell said of Sherwood. “But defensively he stepped up huge last year. He is an outstanding third baseman, and very few have the hands and composure that he has. We have some expectations of him; he’s put on some weight in the weight room, and when he gets ahold of the ball, he hits it hard. Same with Dowden — he’s a guy who can play any spot in the lineup.”
Two key juniors who will get plenty of playing time are Levi Frazier (.344, six RBI) and shortstop Satchell Wilson (.189, 11 stolen bases).
“Levi is a guy we’ll take advantage of at the plate,” Campbell said. “He’s a guy who has spent a lot of time, even with basketball and football, getting better. He missed some time last year with injury, but you can tell the difference this year.
“Satchell, he’s an animal. He has outstanding hands, and his feet are quick, both at the plate and defensively. I think he’s hit the ball harder than anybody so far.”
Frazier is also expected to contribute as a pitcher after compiling a 4.67 ERA in five outings last season.
A player expected to add some pop to the lineup is sophomore Caden Shirley. In 22 games last year, Shirley batted .250 with four doubles and 12 RBI and had the only home run among players returning. This preseason, his bat already seems to be in mid-season form.
“In the preseason scrimmage, he was three for three with two triples,” Campbell said.
The pitching staff returns mainly intact from a year ago. It will be led by senior Dustin Dowden, who led the team in innings pitched and appearances in 2016 with a 3-4 record and a 4.58 ERA.
“I have high expectations for him,” Campbell said. “A lot of that is based on the experience he has, the way he composes himself on the mound and the maturity he has about himself. It leads the team.”
Junior Devan Frank, who will not be in the rotation at first, is another strong arm returning. The left-hander was 2-3 with a 4.88 ERA in a season highlighted by a one-hitter against Western.
“He’s had some arm trouble and is working himself back,” Campbell said. “In the bullpen sessions, he’s throwing a lot of strikes.”
Senior Jaren Cravens (2.68 ERA) and junior Cameron Holycross (5.79 ERA) were effective as relief pitchers in 2016, a role Campbell expects both to reprise in 2017.
“Depending on how everything works out, they’ll be in similar roles,” he said. “Jaren just comes in and takes care of business; he really hits his spots. Cameron has made huge strides, slimmed down, and added some strength, and his mechanics have come right along.”
Sophomore Ryne Wheeler will make the switch from pitcher to everyday catcher this season, while fellow sophomore Seth Baugh (P, 1B) has impressed Campbell early in the preseason.
“He’s been one who has made the most strides this offseason,” Campbell said. “He has worked his tail off in the weight room and getting hitting lessons. I think his mechanics have caught up with his growth.”
Campbell said he looks forward to seeing how the efforts of the team pay off as the season gets under way Friday, April 7, when Michigan high school Forest Hills visits Lapel in the Bulldog season opener.
“Our strength has to be the work ethic,” he said. “Our guys have put in a lot of time, and it is showing up so far.”