RIPLEY – If the 2016 baseball season were a movie starring the Ripley Viking baseball team, it would be a tale of redemption. Redemption (some would call it revenge) has been the theme all through the offseason for head coach Shane Casto’s squad. When we last left the blue and white crew, they were upset in the Region 3 final by Greenbrier East, a team that the Vikings had throttled 13-0 in the regular season. Despite a frantic comeback attempt, the Spartans ended the Vikings’ season one game short of Charleston. That loss has provided all the fuel the Vikings have needed in getting ready for 2016.
“Last year, we had a great season that ended a littler earlier than we hoped,” Casto said, “We had a chance against Greenbrier East and that has left a very bad taste in the mouths of these guys. It’s been talked about a lot since then and up to now. If we can get back [to the regional finals] again, I think they know what not to do now.”
“We tried not to change anything in the playoffs last year,” Casto continued, “We got down there and probably flirted on the cocky side a little bit – especially with the way we handled them in the regular season. We’re looking forward to getting going and getting back to that point again.”
The 2015 version of the Vikings, which reached as high as third in the polls, were powered by a fearsome lineup one through nine. Three of the key cogs in that lineup – Easton Berry, Trevor Tucker and Isaac Koontz – graduated and must be replaced. Fortunately, a vast majority of that same lineup returns in 2016. At the top of the list is senior shortstop Christopher Jordan. Jordan added the MSAC Player of the Year to his extensive resume last season after batting .495 with 36 RBIs and 38 stolen bases. The Vikings also return their second leading hitter from a year ago in junior Anthony Jarvis. Jarvis hit .471 last season and led the team in RBIs with 54. Other key returnees for the Viking bats are senior Cody Pittenger (.363 and seven HR in 2015) and senior outfielder Luke Layhew. Returning juniors are third baseman Lane Casto, second baseman Remy Boyce and utility player Ben Mack.
“To be honest, I’m really not sure what the lineup is going to be yet,” Coach Casto said, “Losing Easton and Trevor at the top, those guys are going to be tough to replace. I’m very confident in the guys that will step in and take those jobs. We played 34 games last year and had the same lineup in 32 of them. This year, we have all kinds of combinations. It may take a while to find the right recipe for success, but any which way we go, I think the pieces are there.”
The Vikings also return the vast majority of their pitching staff in 2016. Senior lefty Logan McCoy will look to close out his Ripley career in a strong way after finishing 2015 5-3 with a 1.53 ERA. Jared Bumpus will also figure prominently on the mound for Ripley in 2016. He finished 2015 with a 4-2 with a 3.75 ERA. Cody Pittenger returns as a right handed option for pitching coach Frankie Cummings, serving once again as a power arm for the Vikings. Pittenger went 7-1 with an ERA of 2.00 in 2015.
Out of the bullpen, Layhew will look to close down games in the late innings. Layhew was a perfect five for five in save opportunities last season, while Jordan will be used more on the mound this season. Casto and Mack will also be used on the mound this season, having come on strong in offseason workouts.
“We’re going to be about 12 or 13 deep,” Casto said, “The good thing is, we’re deep. Hopefully, we can get guys accepting their roles. Whether it be a pinch hit every game, courtesy running, a defensive substitution late or a designated bunter, if they can accept that, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Rounding out the lineup for the Vikings are: juniors Jacob Brannon and Drew Izold; sophomore Rocky Ford and freshmen Tyler Haskins and Dane Petersen.
Even more than last season, the regular season schedule will test the Vikings. Casto made no bones about the strength of last season’s schedule, wanting to prepare his team for the rigors of late season baseball. This season, according to Casto, will be even tougher. Along with the MSAC schedule and regional opponents, the Vikings will play teams from Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, New York and Ohio at different points this season. The Vikings were invited to play in the Super Preps Tournament in Louisville, KY, will play in the Ed Carter Memorial Tournament in Charleston, as well as hosting their own tournament–the Ripley Baseball Invitational (RBI)–all in April.
“We had the flashy record last year,” Casto said, “This year, we might be .500 at the end of the regular season. As I’ve said many times, [regular season games are] scrimmages. Obviously, you want to win them all, but these guys are going to be challenged. We’ll make sure that when the playoffs roll around, no pitching is going to sneak up on us. The regular season will be very challenging for them.”
With his team and schedule in place, all that’s left for Casto and his team are expectations. Although last year didn’t end the way they wanted, it has only served to intensify the hunger.
“Win it all,” Casto answered quickly, when asked about his expectations for the season, “If we don’t get to Charleston, I’ll be very disappointed. There’s no reason we can’t get there.”
Inclement weather wiped out the Vikings' game with Oak Hill at Epling Stadium in Beckley on Saturday. Ripley’s season opener will be tonight at home against MSAC rival South Charleston. First pitch in that contest is set for 6:00 p.m. from Viking Park.