The Stephenville Yellow Jackets were not happy about the way their 2018 baseball season ended, so they are determined to make up for it this season.
SHS head baseball coach Justin Swenson guided the Jackets to the area round of the Class 4A playoffs, where they were eliminated by Iowa Park in a best-of-three series, 2-1. The Hawks are coached by Michael Swenson — Justin’s older brother.
SHS finished with a 16-15-2 season mark. They were the third-place team out of what had been District 8-4A. District champion Godley, which was loaded with several major college recruits, reached the state semifinals.
If Swenson is right about his 2019 Jackets, they won’t need him to deliver any major motivational speeches from on top of the dugout.
“This group has such a bad taste in their mouths from losing Game 3 (last season) that it doesn’t take much to motivate them. They knew they were close last year. They’re motivated, but it’s a very confident group.
“The biggest thing that cost us last year was consistency with our pitchers. We had a lot of walks. We focused in the offseason to develop pure strength, hoping that will lead to more extra-base hits.”
Stephenville will compete against Godley, Brownwood, Glen Rose and Mineral Wells in the new five-team District 7-4A alignment.
Swenson noted that 2018 district champion Godley will have to deal with the loss of eight starters to graduation. In contrast, SHS returns seven starting position players, along with one key starting pitcher from the 2018 crew. Four seniors were lost to graduation
“In my eyes, we’re the favorite,” Swenson said. “We were picked second in Texas High School Baseball behind Godley.”
SHS had scrimmages against Cleburne, Brock and Springtown, then held its annual Blue/Gold Scrimmage last Friday. The Jackets are scheduled to begin their regular-season schedule on Thursday, Feb. 21 in a tournament hosted by Iowa Park. On Thursday they will play at 12:15 against Bridgeport, followed by a 2 p.m. game versus Amarillo Tascosa. On Friday the Jackets are slated to meet Snyder at 4:45 p.m., and Iowa Park at 7 p.m.
PITCHING & DEFENSE
“We’ll be built around pitching and defense, like we’ve done since I’ve been here,” said Swenson, who has taken the Jackets to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons since being named as head coach. “But with the kids maturing, our offensive production should increase from previous years.”
Senior Mason Castleberry is a returning first-team all-district pitcher for SHS who struck out 47 batters in 43-1/3 innings last year. He has been held out so far as a precaution as he recovers from an off-season elbow injury he sustained in a summer league.
Two other top pitchers — senior Caleb Smith and junior Daniel Luna — are also back. Smith was a second-team all-district choice who won four of his five decisions while striking out 26 in 45-1/3 innings. Luna struck out 43 and posted a 3.10 earned run average in 38 innings.
Other key returnees include first-team all-district shortstop Derek Gifford, who will be starting for a fourth consecutive year on the varsity. Senior catcher Trevor Easter is a three-year starter.
Senior Gage Graham returns to center field after batting .305 a year ago with 32 hits, 30 runs and 15 stolen bases. Senior first baseman Gabe Moore posted a .312 batting average in 2018, with 27 runs batted in and 11 doubles.
Cade Dunavant, a senior second baseman and outfielder, is also expected to play a key role once again.
SHS should also benefit from the return of Cody Storrs, a senior outfielder and catcher with lots of varsity experience who missed most of last season with an injury.
In addition, possibly four or five key players from last year’s junior varsity squad — which won 17 of its 21 games — should help with depth.