After the Stephenville Yellow Jackets were eliminated from the baseball playoffs last season, Caleb Gibbons — one of their graduating seniors at the time — used the words "young" and "dangerous" to predict what this year’s team would be like.
Justin Swenson enters his fourth season as the head coach of the Jackets with plenty of options on the table, coming off a 23-9-2 playoff season in which they reached the third round of the Class 4A playoffs.
The Jackets were swept by 7th-ranked Godley in their best-of-three regional quarterfinal playoff series, but SHS had 17 underclassmen on the varsity who are ready to pick up where they left off. Nine of those are now juniors.
The Jackets had been scheduled to play in a tournament last weekend in Iowa Park, but that got rained out. They drove instead to Big Spring, where they played Decatur and Big Spring twice each to get in some games. On Friday they beat Big Spring 9-6 and Decatur 6-3. Saturday the Jackets were edged by Decatur 8-7 and by Big Spring, 6-5.
Caleb Smith was the starting pitcher in the first game Friday and worked three innings for the win in the five-inning contest. Daniel Luna was on the mound for the first 4-2/3 innings in the second game Friday. In the first game Saturday, Kade Averhoff pitched the first three innings and was relieved by Zane Smith. Derek Gifford pitched the first four frames in Saturday’s loss to Big Spring.
“We have a lot of questions that need to be answered,” said Swenson, who led the Jackets to the area round of the playoffs in 2015 and 2016.
Often if a coach has only four seniors and is talking about having lots of questions that need to be answered at the start of a season, that could mean trouble. But in Swenson’s case, it only means that the Jackets have lots of talent.
“I think it will work itself out,” he added.
Among the seven seniors lost to graduation were first-team all-District 8-4A pitcher Caleb Gibbons, and second-team all-district performers Luke Bullard, a pitcher, and outfielder Seth Heupel. Aaron Abila, an honorable mention all-district outfielder, also graduated.
Among the returnees are Easton Jones, who was the district’s Pitcher of the Year, plus all-district juniors Derek Gifford (first-eam infielder), Cody Storrs (first-team catcher) and Trevor Easter (second-team designated hitter). Gifford’s primary position is shortstop.
“We’re going to be a lot better offensively,” Swenson said. “With the pitching staff losing Gibbons, they have to step up.”
Among the other key returning experienced players are third baseman Clay Krause, first baseman/second baseman Zane Smith, and right fielder Kade Averhoff.
Jones, who is also a designated hitter, has been feeling some tightness in his elbow that was injured while pitching in a summer league, and is making a return trip to his doctor.
Jones had stem-cell treatment on his elbow in the offseason that enabled him to make a remarkable return as Stephenville’s quarterback during the football season. He was able to lead the Jackets to the state semifinals and throw for 3,083 yards and 35 touchdowns.
“If we have him, I like our chances,” said Swenson, whose team is picked third in the district this year behind Godley and Midlothian Heritage. “He’s a competitor. He hates losing. He can do a lot, just with his determination.”
Junior Gage Graham, who was on the junior varsity a year ago, brings plenty of speed and defensive skill as a new potential starter in the outfield. Another JV player from last year, Nolan Carroll, has a chance to take over the duties at second base.
Two other juniors — Mason Castleberry and Caleb Smith — along with sophomore Daniel Luna will add pitching depth. Smith served as the closer last season.
Cade Dunavent is a move-in who should help as a middle infielder with his speed and defense, and can handle at bat.
Swenson said that Godley has nine starters back, including four seniors who have signed early to play in college at Division I schools. In one online poll, Godley is ranked No. 2 in the state behind Robinson, while Heritage is No. 14 and Stephenville ranks 19th. Godley is fifth in the Texas High School Coaches Association preseason top 10 rankings.
Swenson knows it will be tough to win the district title, but is optimistic that the young Jackets could end up being good enough to post some upsets and make it happen.