While the Kenton Ridge High School baseball team is steeped in tradition, the Cougars had never won four straight Central Buckeye Conference Kenton Trail Division titles — until last season.
This year, they’re hoping to make it five in a row. They know the rest of the league will be looking to knock them off the winners’ podium.
“That kind of puts the bulls-eye on your back,” said Cougars coach Aaron Shaffer. “Everybody is going to want to beat us, so we’ve got to be ready for that. They’ve done a good job the last couple years of taking everybody’s best shot. We’ve got to be able to do that again this year because everybody is going to be gunning for you.”
The Cougars return eight seniors and five juniors from last year’s squad that won the division title and advanced to its third straight district final. The Cougars finished the season 19-6, falling 9-5 to Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy in the Division II district final.
“We have quite a few guys coming back, but at the same time, we’re replacing our entire infield,” Shaffer said. “We’ve got a lot of new faces in new places. We’re still trying to kind of figure things out.”
The Cougars opened the season with a 3-0 victory over Waynesville on Saturday, a D-III district finalist last season.
Kenton Ridge graduated six players from last year’s squad, including Quinton Roach, a D-II All-Ohio first team selection last year who hit .517 with 16 RBIs and 21 stolen bases. He also earned CBC Kenton Trail co-Player of the Year honors. Two other 3-year varsity players — Bailey Armentrout and Drew Wichael — also graduated.
“There’s a leadership void that needs to be filled and we’re still figuring that out,” Shaffer said.
The weather has been tough on baseball teams early this season, Shaffer said. The Cougars haven’t practiced outside very much due to the rain and cold temperatures. Kenton Ridge will also have to replace third baseman Jordan Ward, who will miss the season with a torn UCL and will likely have Tommy John surgery, Shaffer said.
“It’s trying to piece together that infield, but we haven’t had a lot of time to do it because we haven’t been outside very much,” Shaffer said.
The Cougars return junior pitcher Calvin Dibert, who went 8-0 last season with a 2.32 earned run average and 49 strikeouts in 45.1 innings pitched. Dibert also hit .368 with 22 RBIs.
“He’s a guy that when we give the ball to him, he’s going to compete,” Shaffer said. “He’s going to go after guys and throw strikes. We’re very confident with him on the mound. It’s very nice to have that back.”
Seniors Chris Lyle and Matt Tateman will also take the mound as starters for the Cougars this spring. The Cougars also return catcher Jaxon Wright.
“I like our staff as a whole,” Shaffer said. “We have a lot of guys who have experience at the varsity level.”
The CBC is always strong with several programs with great tradition, Shaffer said. London joins the CBC Kenton Trail this season, while North Union joins the CBC Mad River. Every game counts in the CBC race, including games against the other division — meaning the Cougars won’t have any breaks during the regular season.
“You’ve got to come ready to go every day,” Shaffer said. “We can’t have any letdowns. We’ve been really good at that when we’ve made this run and we’ve got to be able to do the same this year.”
Here are five things to watch this season:
1. Outside of Kenton Ridge, no other Clark or Champaign County team advanced to the district finals last season. Greenon (D-III), Southeastern (D-IV), Triad (D-IV) and West Liberty-Salem (D-III) all lost in the sectional finals.
2. Northeastern returns several key players from a squad that finished 18-9 a year ago, including first All-OHC North Division selection Connor Obee (.351, 19 RBIs), second teamer Gavin Yearout (.414, 17 RBIs) and honorable mention selection Garrett Peters (5-2, 2.17 ERA, 42 Ks).
3. Tecumseh returns nine starters and five pitchers from a squad that went 13-10 last season. Arrows senior shortstop Blais Hale (.352 BA) has signed to play at Cedarville University next season.
4. Greeneview won the OHC South title last season. They return three all-conference first teamers in Ian Tamplin, Tommy Rawlings and Mitchell Hines.
5. Shawnee returns two All-CBC Kenton Trail players in senior Bryce Cox (.366 BA) and sophomore Luke Myers (.317 BA). The Braves went 10-10 last year. They beat Miami East 8-3 in their season opener on Saturday.