Coming off a 23-7 overall record and a Raccoon River Conference championship, some observers might think the Perry baseball team must feel as if they had met their goals.
In a word: Wrong.
Perry was 10-4 in the RRC and 23-6 overall when they were caught by surprise in the first round of the playoffs by Bondurant-Farrar in what was arguably the biggest postseason opening game shocker in the state.
The memory of that loss sits fresh in the minds of a Bluejay squad that is brimming with talent and that is now more determined than ever to reach one of their goals: a state tournament appearance.
“I think it will come down to how well the pitching holds out, because I believe we will hit the ball well,” veteran head coach Mike Long said. “We will need some guys to eat up innings on the weekends so we can keep the top of the rotation as fresh as possible for the postseason — which is the same thing every other team is trying to do.”
Perry lost seven seniors to graduation, a group that took 17 pitching wins and three of eight saves with them.
However, two-time all-state lefty Will Whiton returns for his final campaign after finishing 5-0 with five saves and a 1.5 ERA last year. He struck out 55 and walked just eight in 47 innings, allowing opposing batters to hit just .200.
Long nursed Whiton’s innings last year, but said concerns over his arm strength this year have largely been resolved.
“That doesn’t mean we are going to hand him the ball every chance we get,” he said. “He is so important to us in the field (Whiton’s all-state distinctions have largely been earned by his play in center field) and at the plate that we just are not going to push it.”
The only other pitcher with varsity experience returning is junior Alex Long, who tossed just 3.2 frames last summer at the top level.
He will be joined in the rotation by sophomores Janier Puente and Kyle Nevitt, with juniors Blake Lansing and Kade VanKirk also expected to be handed the ball.
“I think we are going to hit, and maybe hit for more power than we have in the past,” coach Long said. “Will (Whiton), Zach (Roberts) and Adan (Medina) have all gotten bigger and stronger and are hitting the ball hard against our varsity pitching and I expect that to continue.”
Perry hit 10 home runs and 40 doubles last year, with the addition of five triples helping to create a .412 slugging percentage. The team hit .306 overall and had an on-base percentage of .398.
A big part of those numbers was the steady play of four-year starter and jack-of-all-trades Jeremiah Ellett, who will replaced at shortstop by Long. Senior Nic Wilhelmi returns at second base, with Lansing moving to first base while Medina plays third. Whiton will start in center when not pitching, with VanKirk in left field and Nevitt in right, though Puente and Nic Fellom will also see plenty of time in the lineup as well, with eighth grader Kaleb Olejniczak also a spot-possibility, mainly as a situational runner.
Roberts has been a mainstay behind the plate and will be expected to handle most of the catching duties, though he may be relieved on weekends and may see some time on the mound.
Winterset was also 10-4 last year in the RRC and Long expects the Huskies to field a strong team again this year.
“I have not really thought too much about the other teams in the conference,” he admitted. “I am more concerned about what we can do to them, not the other way around.”
Long is 678-354 (.657) as he enters his 38th year as Perry’s skipper. He is assisted by Adam Bloom and Seth Marburger, with Mick Long a volunteer assistant.