RIPLEY - With a quick glance at last year's roster, you knew it was coming. Ripley head coach Shane Casto and his coaching staff has some work to do.
It isn't that the roster is lacking in talent. On the contrary, it simply lacks varsity experience.
Last year, Ripley finished (14-18) and was eventually ousted by Parkersburg South in their Region 4 section 2 match-up after dropping their first round robin style sectional game to Parkersburg. This year, realignment will lead the Vikings down a different path in the post season.
The blue crew is armed with three seniors, a junior and 20 sophomores and juniors. Last years squad had the luxury of a three or four man starting pitching rotation. That rotation was choc-full of seasoned veteran hurlers.
This season, the young guns will have to get their feet wet and learn quickly from their mistakes.
Ripley returns only 14.1 varsity pitched innings from 2012. Isaac Koontz hurled five of those innings last season and the burly sophomore gunslinger will be counted on this season to help solidify a young staff of pitchers.
Trevor Tucker pitched 9.1 innings of varsity action last season in relief while posting a 3.85 ERA for the Vikings. Tucker, a versatile player who can play the infield, outfield and was tagged as a leader in the rotation, is still rehabbing a knee injury that required surgery during football season.
The quarterback was injured early in September, providing a window of opportunity to get back for baseball season. Tucker has not been released by his doctor to play and likely will miss early season games for Ripley.
Trevor's older brother Nathan, the lone junior on the roster, will also be pitching this season and could be seen making some fine defensive plays at the hot corner during a recent practice. Tucker will also be counted on for punch in the line-up and will be taking the hill for Ripley in the opener versus State Champion Princeton.
Sophomore Easton Berry could be the teams most improved returning player. Berry has been impressive early on and the southpaw's yakker (curve ball) has caught the eye of coach Casto.
"He has been working hard on his game in the off-season and it is paying dividends. If Easton keeps progressing as he has been, he is going to be a very good ball player for us as a pitcher and outfielder," said Casto.
Berry had a successful season as a place kicker for the Viking football team and also plays soccer.
Freshman southpaw Jared Bumpus has made an early impression. He has been attacking the strike zone and throwing strikes early on while showing the ability to change speeds effectively. Bumpus could (tentatively) make his first varsity start versus Hurricane on March 19.
Page 2 of 3 - Freshman Christopher Jordan will be the team's starting shortstop and pitch in late inning situations only. The Vikings are thin at the infield position which will dictate how much and when the talented frosh sees time on the hill.
Jordan hit (.659) with three homers and 24 RBI's in 17 games last season at Ripley Middle School. He was on base in over 75% of his at bats. He notched seven doubles and four triples for the Vikings.
Cody Pittenger, lefty Logan McCoy and Luke Layhew will be keeping the bullpen warm providing relief.
"We want these guys pitching for contact and throwing strikes. We want our defense to make plays for us," said pitching coach Frankie Cummings.
Cummings added that about 90% of his hurlers met their strength and conditioning goals in the off-season.
In the hitting department, it all starts with the only senior on the roster who played in every game last season, Tyler Pittenger.
"Pitt" is a line-drive masher who has good baseball instincts on the base paths. He took second base once last year on a walk when he caught the catcher napping.
The 3-year starter has hit .300 the last two seasons. Last year, he ranked second on the team in doubles (4), RBI's (18) triples (1) and sacrifices (4). He is predicted to hit third in the batting order. The outfielder hopes to continue playing on the collegiate level when his prep career wraps up in June.
Pittenger and sophomore Jonny Stepp will be the only returning starters on the field and both will be playing new positions this season. While the change for Pittenger involves sliding over to centerfield from left field, Stepp will leave his perch at second base and serve as the new Viking backstop.
"I caught in Little League. I prefer second base but I will do whatever coach needs me to do for the team," said an unselfish Stepp who is affectionately known by Ripley fans as "Jonny Baseball".
Koontz and senior Preston Baldwin will platoon at first base, a position the Vikings have covered like an infield tarp.
"We may have 17 first baseman on the roster," joked Casto.
Freshman Cody Pittenger, Tyler's brother, will handle second bagger responsibilities.
Berry and sophomore Alex Hambrick will handle the corner outfield positions.
The Vikings have healthy competition playing out across the board and coach Casto says that the lineup could change from day to day. He welcomes that competitive spirit.
"We simply have positions to fill and we want the best nine guys on the field. I am encouraged by the hustle I am seeing early on," said Casto.
Casto says that he is encouraged by the camaraderie of this year's team.
"There are no cliques with this team. They are a band of brothers."
Page 3 of 3 - Also competing for playing time are talented sluggers Isaac Vidrine, Dalton Wentz, Zac McNemar, Seth Pennington, Justin McKown, Josh Casto, Aaron Wilkenson, Garrett Stearns, Scott Creameans, Brandon Shamblin and Nolan Holley.
The former Little Leaguer's who played for a championship in Georgia live on ESPN are beginning to trickle into the varsity program. Those players also won conference championships in middle school baseball for former RpMS baseball coach Todd Layhew.
Coach Casto's staff will remain mostly intact from a year ago. Aside from Cummings, Mike Lawrence will coach the outfield and first base. Gary Barnard has joined the staff as bench coach.
One distinction of the staff is that each coach was a First Team All-State baseball player in their prep days. Casto was a member of the 1997 State Championship team and was an assistant to retired coach Ray Swisher on the 2004 Championship Team.
For 35 years the voice in the press box will be Mike Ruben. Ruben's perch was officially named "Rube's Roost" last season and was tagged with a sign in dedication to Rube's long tenure and service to Ripley High School.
Steve Lough will serve as trainer and his son Jarrett will handle bat-boy responsibilities in 2013.
Ripley travels to Wahama for a scrimmage tonight and will host the State Champion Princeton Tigers at 5 p.m. March 16.
Coach Casto is realistic in his goals for his young squad of mashers.
"I realize that we will take some lumps early in the season. We want to be playing our best ball come sectional time and we want to get better every game, every practice and learn from our mistakes. I expect us to play solid fundamental baseball."
Regardless of varsity experience, these Vikings look to stake their claim on a slice of rich Ripley Baseball tradition. PLAY BALL!