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North Miami baseball ready to drive forward

UPTICK: North Miami’s baseball team moved up in the TRC standings last season but didn’t translate the added conference wins to a stronger regular season. With the bulk of the Warrior lineup returning and improved competition around the field, the team will look to players such as Nate Musselman (Pictured) to drive the team to bigger and better things in 2019.

BY TRENT SCOTT - tscott@perutribune.com

There were moments in 2018 where North Miami seemed right on the cusp of finding the breakthrough it needed as a program.

Conference wins over Northfield, Maconaquah, Whitko and Southwood often went without a follow-up, however, and the Warriors finished 8-18 on the season.

Most of the team returns and with a large freshman class providing a spark in several areas of the field, North Miami head coach Troy Hudson believes the Warriors will break through ceiling over their heads in 2019.

“We’ve got a nice mix of youth and veterans, with a strong junior class driving the team,” Hudson said. “This feels like the deepest group I’ve ever had here at North Miami with the freshmen pushing the upperclassmen and being two-deep at every position.

“Practices have become competitive as guys are looking for spots and we’ve been looking for that as a program. This is the first year where we’re at that point.”

To get to where the school wants, North Miami will have to make a new path for itself.

The Warrior baseball program, according to Hudson, has no sectional or conference titles to its name but nonetheless believed the current squad had the chance to change those statistics.

“I’m excited to go into the season,” Hudson said. “North Miami doesn’t have a history of success and has only finished second in the conference once in 2002.

“The players are on board with what we’re doing and we’ve been competitive in practice since day one. We’re going to play the best nine players at that time or any given time.”

The first job for North Miami will be to replace the bats and fielding positions of Matt Stewart, Patrick Masters and Braxton Gunter, whom combined for nearly a third of the runs driven in and scored by the team last season.

Stewart’s spot at catcher was the most pressing concern but one Hudson said was also in capable hands.

“Alex Masters will take over catching duties after doing a little bit last year when we needed him,” Hudson said. “He’s taken some really good steps this year and is solid as can be behind the plate.

“We have full confidence he’ll be one of the best catchers in the conference as he’s taking control of things. Parker Johnson is a freshman that did a lot of travel ball for the middle school team and will jump in whenever he’s needed.

“Greg Sonafrank is still working through a knee injury but will battle for the No. 2 spot when Alex pitches,” Hudson added.

Around the infield, the Warriors are more solidified with three returners in Braxton Beall, Nate Musselman and Austin Carter,

Hudson said the team had options to fill in at third base with while a Peru transfer added depth around the entire infield area.

“Patrick Masters was one of the best defenders I’ve had at 3rd base and is the biggest defensive replacement we had from the field,” Hudson noted. “Eli Henderson played for us in the outfield last year but we’ve moved him to third where he and Josh Mongosa are getting some time.

“Jackson Green is a transfer who can fill in there whenever he’s not pitching and is someone we can use anywhere in the middle infield. Braxton has one of the best gloves on the team at shortstop while Nate is back at second base.

“Carter will be back at first while we have some additional options there between Parker, Tyler Bauer and Drayden Schanlaub,” Hudson added.

Even with Henderson moving inwards, Hudson said the outfield spots would in a good spot.

“We have a couple of guys battling for the left field spot in Andrew Moreland and Corey Collins,” Hudson said. “Both guys have been working hard during the offseason though we may use Eli out there on occasion still.

“Jackson mostly played in left field last year but has taken over the spot in center field while showing great leadership there. Braeden Hendershott is another transfer that has blown me away in right field with his bat and strong arm.

“He’s only a freshman but he looks and plays like an upperclassman,” Hudson added.

The defensive side of the ball was a concern at times with the team piling up 69 errors over the course of the season, leading to 82 unearned runs across 26 games.

Hudson said that should change in the 2019 season with the pitching having improved significantly over the course of the offseason and the competitive positional battles improving the defense all around the field.

“We’ve more or less simulated games in the gym with live arms due to the field conditions,” Hudson pointed out. “Pitching, defense and speed are going to be our three best assets early on.

“We have three No. 1 pitches on the team between Nate, Braxton and Jackson, three guys who could be No. 1s on any team in the conference, which is a plus for us. We also have several good pitchers behind them in Josh, who throws the hardest out of anyone on the team and has been working on his breaking ball, Alex and Eli, who we’ll likely use in non-conference settings.

“Defensively, we’re going to be one of the top in the conference,” Hudson added. “We’ve got several guys we can bring off the bench to run and pinch hit with several guys who can run the bases well.”

In games where the pitching and defense was solid, the offense didn’t always deliver when it needed to, only scoring 134 runs over the course of the season.

Hudson said a lot of that hinged on a lack of contact and putting the ball in play, a trait the team worked on improving heavily throughout the offseason.

“We took a look at Daleville, who won the Class A state title last year, and tried to figure out, based on what we saw, what we could get better at,” Hudson said. “The No. 1 thing that stood out was cutting down on strikeouts.

“We had 247 strikeouts last year, which was way too many. We did an eight week program during the offseason which was based on focusing on contact, whether that was on the small ball machine, with the thunderstick, hitting tennis balls, etc.

“We did several drills to work on making contact and keeping visual contact on the ball through the swing,” Hudson added. “We had 15-16 varsity guys out every session and we feel good with where we’re at, though that still needs to translate into games.

“Our four seniors, Josh, Jackson, Austin and Nate Maynard, all have really improved with the bat in their hands and we feel they’re going to bring that with them into games. We don’t expect anything less than success in hitting but we do need to cut down on the strikeouts and have the confidence that, once we step up to the plate, we’re going to make things happen.”

The combination of offensive and defensive improvements have been aided by a solid coaching staff, a group Hudson said had given him a chance to be able to see the bigger picture more clearly during the early weeks of the season.

“This is the most fun I’ve had with this team,” Hudson said. “We have a great coaching staff between Josh Donathan, who works with our pitchers, Jake Green, who knows the game inside-out and is working with the infield, Steve Holland as our catcher guru, Steve Frank as our JV coach and Darryl Schanlaub, who’s working with our outfielders.

“Having this group of coaches has allowed be to be able to oversee more of the whole situation, which has been nice.”

North Miami opens the season Tuesday with back-to-back home games against South Bend Career Academy and Jimtown before traveling to South Bend Clay on Thursday.

Hudson said the team wanted to get several games in before the upcoming spring break and looked for the team to get the season off to a great start.

“We were trying to schedule as many games as possible because our spring break is so much later than the other schools,” Hudson said. “It’s a challenge because we’re playing from behind, trying to get caught up on games and playing five or six in a week to do so.

“We like where we’re at right now. We’ve played South Bend Career Academy while Jimtown and South Bend Clay are in the same conference.

“We know those teams play some tough schedules but we’re not sure what we’ll see when we they play them,” Hudson added. “Our goal is to be 3-0 going into spring break and see where we’re at.”