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PAXTON — Paxton-Buckley-Loda Junior High School’s baseball team relied on substantial depth a year ago in recording an 18-4 record and winning both the Twin Counties Conference regular-season and tournament titles.
This season, head coach Rick Johnson will have only three of his starters back while his eighth-graders shoulder most of the load as the Panthers try to match last fall’s magic.
Versatile players like Dalton Coplea and Cole Eshleman will give Johnson a nice foundation, however, and the return of pitcher Andrew Zenner will give PBL an ace to count on as some less experienced arms develop.
Coplea started at shortstop all of last season during the team’s “A” games, and Johnson appreciated the steady play and the 16 runs batted in and the .462 batting average he provided. But this summer Coplea donned the catcher’s gear for a team coached by PBL assistant baseball coach Daron Johnson — and did it seamlessly, which allows the Panthers to mix and match a little around the infield.
“This year, I’ll probably put Dalton’s name in the lineup at catcher a little more when he’s not pitching,” said Johnson. “He’s a leader, and to have a kid like that behind the plate is a good thing. I probably have four kids who can catch — Coplea, Eshleman, (seventh-grader) Keaton Krumwiede and Luis Rodriguez — and I feel good about all of them.”
Eshleman hit .444 with 15 RBIs as a top-of-the-order hitter last fall, and he has played infield and outfield, as well as being a strike-throwing pitcher. He appears to be the likely shortstop this fall.
Cooper Johnson, a backup second baseman for the 2011 squad, played shortstop a lot during the summer months. The lefty hitter should step in as a regular infielder.
Zenner went 4-0 on the mound as a seventh-grader and was among 10 players who started at least half of PBL’s “A” games and batted .361 or better. He played third base quite a bit when not pitching, and he may play first base frequently.
Last fall, PBL won a slew of contests handily, and Johnson was able to get a handful of other seventh-graders meaningful playing time. Cooper Johnson, Kaleb Denault and Michael Curry benefited from that luxury and combined for 25 hits as backups; their added experience will help them as their roles evolve.
Tyler Adkins also drove in nine runs as a backup first baseman a year ago. Adkins, a lefty, and hard-throwing righty Luke Fitton — who picked up a victory a season ago — have a chance to earn more mound innings.
Fitton may see some quality time in the outfield this year as one of his most improved players from 2011, said Johnson. Curry and Rodriguez are battling for the center field slot, and seventh-graders Jaxson Coplea and Christian King may play corner outfield positions and a third, Wil Pound, is one who could be the team’s utility player.
King and eighth-grade newcomer Colten Kleinert are in line to log pitching innings this season, Johnson added. Eighth-grader Ryan Masterson may also see mound action.
Seventh-grader Ben McClure is another utility player who handles the bat well and seventh graders Seth Allen and Mitch St.Peter are outfield candidates.
“We may not have the depth as last year, but more players can play multiple positions this year,” Johnson said in assessing his current edition with the 2011 squad. “I think we have the potential to be as good as or better than last year. The key will be to play consistent baseball and make other teams beat themselves. We’ll probably have to improve our base running, as we don’t have as much team speed or power as in 2011.
“But it’s a pretty cohesive bunch and we’ve got leaders that aren’t afraid to take that role.”
PBL opens with a 10 a.m. home doubleheader on Saturday against Ridgeview.
The Panthers then host Unity at 4 p.m. Monday.