Each year, the UIL baseball postseason produces an enormous group of teams left scratching their heads about what might have been. Only one team wins it all, and a bevy of contenders with bona fide chances at glory are left with a heaping handful of “nearly there.”
The Lovejoy baseball team had as good a claim as any to a true chance at a title in 2019, with a trio of arms in newly minted alums Jordan Yoder, Luke Stine and Jacob Terwilliger and a heavy-hitting lineup that, in the end, came up just shy.
“As a team, altogether, I feel like we left some meat on the bone, so to speak,” said Jason Wilson, Lovejoy head coach. “[We felt that] we could have advanced and continued to play, but it just didn’t work out. We had our chances in games two and three [against Frisco Lone Star]. We just left some opportunities out there.”
Still, time marches on, and Wilson and his club find themselves in a unique position. With nine seniors leaving, the Leopards will surely look different come the first pitch of 2020. However, expectations for the perennial contender will not be lowered.
It’s those that just walked the stage, Wilson said, that will continue to aid him in that transition despite moving on from the red and black.
“It’s tough. They’re a special group,” he said. “But, at the same time, I feel like they were tremendous leaders, so it helps our sophomores and juniors that were behind them. I think the sophomores and juniors are hungry, now, because of that run, and they kind of know what the expectations are.”
While there are holes to fill on the mound and a new identity to be forged at the plate – one that Wilson said will likely be centered around manufacturing runs with speed and athleticism as opposed to leaning on prolific hitters like alum Luke Finn – there are a number of key pieces that will be back in the fold for another shot next season.
Chief among them on the bump is senior Harrison Durow, who was relied upon on the mound throughout the season and performed well in postseason action. Overall, Durow worked 26 innings and recorded a 4.038 ERA, striking out 41 against just 14 walks.
Joining Durow in the Leopards’ likely leadership core moving forward are sophomore Kolby Branch, junior Ralph Rucker and senior Matt Piccirillo, all of whom Wilson expects to step up.
“It has to be Rucker, Piccirillo, Branch and Durow,” he said. “Those four – I say that just because they have the most experience, and they’ve also got the most experience in the playoffs. They’ve been there and done that, and those are the guys we’re going to really rely on and depend on to be those leaders.”
A multi-sport athlete for the school, Rucker will likely drive the offensive effort next spring. This year, the outfielder hit .393 with seven doubles, a triple and a home run.
Though the aforementioned foursome will likely take on a central role in the locker room, Wilson said he’s excited about his entire group of young players, many of which were confined to bench roles simply due to the talent of the Leopards’ senior class.
“There are some good players that we have that were just not getting a lot of time because of the skill level of the seniors and what they had,” he said. “We’ve still got some guys coming back that are pretty talented.”
More than anything, a simple message will be continue to be delivered throughout the Lovejoy offseason and into competition – the bar has been set, and there are no excuses good enough for not reaching it.
“I don’t think our expectations change a whole lot,” Wilson said. “We talk about over here that we expect to compete for a district championship, we expect to make the playoffs, and we expect to continue to make runs. … I don’t think we’re at a point where we’re rebuilding or trying to do anything completely off-the-wall.
“I think the program’s in a pretty good place with talent rotating through, so we still have pretty high bars and pretty high goals for this team.”
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