High school baseball seemingly starts and ends with pitching and senior leadership—and the Wood River High School varsity baseball team has plenty of both entering its 24-game 2005 diamond campaign.
Wood River, State 3A champion two years ago but playing a much tougher schedule at the 4A level for the first time this spring, opens Saturday, March 12 with a Boise doubleheader against Bishop Kelly's Knights.
Fourteenth-year Wolverine coach Lars Hovey (207-159-1), assisted by longtime sidekick Larry Lloyd, have welcomed 26 players to the program and have nine seniors plus eight freshmen. There's hope for the future. But the future is now for the seniors.
"Our bright spot is pitching, which should keep us in every ball game," said Hovey. "A lot of what happens will depend on the seniors and their intensity and what they want their final season at Wood River to be.
"We'll try to win the league and hopefully host the district championship, and win the district title, and try to get our seventh straight trip to state. But we have a tough schedule. And I know that Minico, coming down from 5A, is a little ahead of the pack and has every intention of winning it."
At the 5A level, the Minico Spartans (18-8) were upset by Pocatello 12-8 in the 2004 District 4/5/6 tournament, then fell to Twin Falls 2-1—and Twin Falls went on to capture third place in the State 5A tourney. Minico felt it should have been at state.
Meanwhile, Jerome was the State 4A champ in 2003. Jay Ostler's Tigers (12-16) finished strong last spring. Jerome lost to Century 7-0 in the Great Basin Conference title game, then beat Burley 10-1 and Bonneville 4-2 to make state, where the Tigers lost to Kuna 12-5 in the consolation game.
It won't be an easy ride for Wood River. Hovey said, "There aren't many letdowns in our schedule." The schedule includes games with Idaho Falls, Caldwell and Meridian at the 24-team Bucks Bag tournament March 24-26 at Storey Park in Meridian.
One other big impact will be the new game format, whereby 4A teams play a single varsity game followed by a junior varsity game—instead of the old 3A format whereby the varsity played a doubleheader, with only the first game counting in league standings.
"It's hard to tell how it will change things, playing only a single varsity game home-and-home. We may see a little higher pitcher in the other team's rotation than we used to," said Hovey.
As far as numbers of pitchers, 2005 will be Wood River's deepest year ever, Hovey said. "And for the most part we threw pretty well last weekend," he added, referring to last Saturday's season-opening jamboree on grass against Twin Falls, Burley, Mountain Home and Minico.
Hailey's ace is crafty senior righty Steve Hansen (9-2 last spring, 17-3 two seasons). Hansen allowed only 11 runs in winning his final six decisions last season. He also threw a five-inning no-hitter against Sugar-Salem.
"The bigger the game, the better he has thrown," said Hovey about Hansen. "It's great to have a good solid ace. He doesn't beat himself, and we're working on a couple of things mechanically to help him even more."
Other senior pitchers, righthanders like all of those on the staff, are Tyson Reynoso (5-3), Tyler Thiede (4-2) and Ted Dankanyin (4-0). Junior Casey Hawkes has grown five inches and has shown good velocity with a breaking ball. Other junior pitchers are Huston Brashears and J.D. Hill. Sophomore Kenny Cardona has shown promise.
Hovey's challenge, besides winning games, will be in finding a way to get all the pitchers their innings of work.
Strength up the middle is a characteristic of Hovey's teams. So is solid defense, normally, although Wood River's defense had some leaks at last May's state tournament—one reason the Wolverines (24-7) finished 4-4 the last three weeks after starting 20-3.
Nevertheless Wood River (9.7 runs per game, yielding 3.5) set a school record for fewest runs allowed last spring en route to its fourth-place state tournament finish.
There is every reason to believe the Hailey defense will improve despite the graduation of last year's seniors Dylan McIlhenny, Steve Durkin, Joe Paisley and Kellen Kinghorn.
Hovey has strength up the middle with senior catcher Billy Kramer, senior shortstop Brady Femling, junior second baseman Morgan Uhrig, Hansen in center field when he's not pitching, and with slick-fielding senior Jonathan Dittmer, also in center field.
Other seniors and their positions are Ben Molyneux (LF) and Dylan Fullmer (RF/3B/DH). When they're not pitching, Reynoso and Dankanyin are at third base, and Thiede at first.
Juniors are Uhrig, Hawkes (P/OF), hard-hitting Derek Abbott (OF/C/DH), Hill (P/1B) and Brashears. Besides Cardona (P/OF/3B), the sophomores are Drew Anderson (2B), Phil Neal (C) and Drake Fischer (infield).
Steve Anderson, the junior varsity/sophomore coach, has welcomed a strong group of eight players including pitchers Pat Patterson and Erik Jacobson. Others are Trent Seamons, Bud Leopold, Danny Kramer, Tyler Israel, Chris Coupe and Alex Moore.