By Todd Wills
Corsicana Daily Sun
The Tigers had a drama-filled 2012 baseball season that will be remembered for a district title, a late night/early morning/long afternoon emotion-filled series victory over Hallsville in Whitehouse and a disappointing ending the next week against Waxahachie.
The reward is Tiger baseball is back among the Top 10 in Class 4A, and the feeling is that with the positive vibes surrounding youth baseball in Corsicana, this could last for a while.
But first comes a season where the Tigers have to prove they deserve their No. 9 preseason ranking in the Texas Association of Baseball Coaches Class 4A poll.
A mixture of experienced seniors and promising young players is there for second-year coach Heath Autrey to tinker with after last year’s 26-10 record and regional quarterfinal appearance.
One big question is — can the Tigers’ pitch?
Six starters are back, including Texas State signee Holden Grounds. The senior right-hander and first-baseman extraordinaire will be the Tigers’ ace and likely cleanup hitter.
Who will fall in behind him on the mound is an unknown, except to Autrey, who said pitching will be the Tigers’ team strength even though Grounds is the only returning pitcher who threw significant innings last year.
“Our pitching is fine,” Autrey said. “It’s the strongest part of our team. It’s our offense that worries me.”
The Tigers ran away with the 15-4A title last year — they went 14-2 in district — because they were blessed with loads of pitching. But Hunter Melton is a freshman backup first baseman at Texas A&M and four-year starter Heath Donica would be playing college baseball had he elected to do so.
The Tigers’ scrimmages have revealed some good news — they’ve allowed 15 runs in four games. Sophomores DJ Minniear and Preston Hill and freshman Trevor Nolen have thrown the ball well. Senior Jeremy Fowler has shown flashes. And Grounds, not surprisingly has been very sharp.
The defense should be solid again. Grounds is terrific at first base and freshman Layton Wolver is currently playing shortstop and will play somewhere on the infield. Senior shortstop Hunter Denbow was the Golden Circle Defensive Player of the Year. The Tigers have two solid glovemen at second base with seniors Aaron Cantu and Reid Folmar.
The outfield can fly with center fielder Zane Otten and right fielder Brady Harlan. Left field is being manned by sophomore Carlos Vega with Cantu, who played so well there last season, ready if needed in the outfield (Cantu made the catch of the season against the wall in Whitehouse in the series-clinching win over Hallsville).
The lineup could be a work in progress with top hitters like Melton and Donica gone, but Otten and catcher Zach Rash have potential — they combined for 34 RBIs last season.
Harlan, who had a brilliant freshman season, will slide into the No. 3 hole and lead the new generation of Tiger hitters. Harlan was the 15-4A Underclassmen of the Year after batting .307 with 26 runs, 22 RBIs, 10 stolen bases and a .380 average with runners in scoring position.
Scrimmages have shown a Tiger team that is inconsistent at the plate, and the power of Melton and Donica won’t be there to count on. Small ball will be key.
“Our offense has to get better,” Autrey said. “We haven’t bunted well. We haven’t run the bases well. We’re young and still working on it.”
The young Tiger core of Hill, Wolver, Nolen, Vega and Minniear could all make an impact at the plate.
Blending young and old will be Autrey’s biggest challenge. He said he’s up to it.
“We have to have guys that are willing to accept the roles they’ve earned,” Autrey said. “And they have to do their roles well. Our young players are doing really well.”
Coach: Heath Autrey
Years at school, record: 2, 26-10
2012 record: 26-10, 14-2 in 15-4A
Last playoff appearance: 2012, regional quarterfinalists
Key returnees: P/1B Holden Grounds, OF Brady Harlan, So., OF Zane Otten, Sr.; C Zach Rash, Sr.; 2B/OF Aaron Cantu, Sr.; 2B Reid Folmar, Sr.; DH Ben Goodrich, Sr.; SS Hunter Denbow, Sr.
Key losses: P/3B Hunter Melton, P/2B Heath Donica, 1B Jacob Peterson, P John Gage, C Karsen Minniear.
Analysis: The Tigers won two playoff series, including a dramatic area round matchup with Hallsville, before getting upset by rival Waxahachie ... Corsicana returns six starters, led by Grounds, who signed with Texas State ... Grounds was 9-2 with a 1.80 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 70 innings ... he also led the Tigers with 33 RBIs ... Harlan had a brilliant freshman year with 22 RBIs and six outfield assists ... Otten was a first-team all-district pick with a .287 batting average, 21 RBIs, 23 runs and he didn’t make an error in center field ... Rash batted .312 with 12 RBIs ... Cantu had six outfield assists ... Matt Burns was 2-1 with a 1.89 ERA, but just had Tommy John surgery last week.