Judging by the start of the Raiders’ 2014 schedule, they aren’t too far removed from duplicating — or, potentially, surpassing — the accomplishments from a year ago.
Walton returned eight starters — Avery Roberts, Chase Burks, Luke Manzo, Logan Barnette, Henry Rowling, Tyler Heinrichs and Aaron Rzucidlo — from last year’s Region 5AAAAAA runner-up team.
Starting pitcher Will White is also back to lead the rotation, with Harrison Veldsma and Glenn Panter coming out of the bullpen. All three pitchers earned at least one start last year, so there are experienced arms Walton coach Shane Amos will turn to hold opposing teams at bay.
“We also bring back a lot of guys that had playing time during the playoffs last year,” Amos said. “They’ve really set themselves up this year for another solid season. Our leadership is good and we’re handling things well right now.”
Pitching has been the Raiders’ forte in a 5-1 start to the season, with the staff allowing more than four runs only once, and holding teams to one run on three occasions.
“Pitching and defense have been our strength,” Amos said. “The offense is working to get on track. Before we played a game, I thought it would be the opposite, but our pitching right out of the chute has been going well.
“We’re a well-balanced team with a versatile lineup.”
Barnette and Burks didn’t pitch last year, but they’ve joined the rotation to add depth. Parker McCoy and Chandler Miller, sophomore infielders who started on the junior varsity program last season, have also been called up to play when either Barnette or Burks take to the mound.
“Those guys go in when Logan and Chase have to pitch,” Amos said. “It allows us to be flexible, and we can still play solid infield defense.”
Defense and solid pitching has allowed Walton to start the season with a record identical to how it began 2013. The biggest difference is that the Raiders averaged more than 10 runs through the first six games last year. This season, Walton hasn’t scored more than eight runs in a game.
“This is an older, battle-tested group that’s picking up right where it left off,” Amos said. “They’re a mature group, so they’ve been in tough situations and have handled them well.”
Other veterans include seniors Kyle Hess, Ryan Uffner and Chase Belcher. Chris Hummel is expected to play third when Carter Kieboom pitches, while Zac Kristofak and Hess are doing a good job rotating in when Rzucidlo is out.
Amos understands his team will be challenged every day throughout the season, especially as Region 5AAAAAA play gets underway. Last year’s region champion, Milton, beat Roswell for the state title, giving the region three of the four spots in the state semifinals.
“Our goal is to win state, but we also want to play well enough to win region,” Amos said. “At the very least, we want to get one of those top four spots to make the playoffs.
“I’m proud of this group for the strong start and for handling adversity, like we got from those winter storms thus far. These guys are ready to show what they can do.”