Knights Aiming To Improve
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Mar 6, 2014, 22:45
File Photo/The Hopewell News/News-Patriot
CHESTER — The 2013 Thomas Dale baseball season came to a thundering halt as Cosby sent the Knights packing in a six-run victory in regionals action. However, while the loss was hard to take at the time, it was also the signaling of the the program turning the proverbial corner.
Previously, the Knights had not advanced to the region tournament since the 2009 season, but they were part of a three-way tie to win the Central District and a two-way tie to win the district tournament, earning them the bid.
And it's the way the Knights outperformed expectations last season — they were picked to finish fifth in the district — which has led to extreme optimism about this year's team which is now a mixture of both younger players and seasoned seniors. The combination has manager Chris Marshall excited about his team's potential after building to this moment for the last few years.
"Half the team is seniors and half the team is juniors, so we have a lot of guys coming back," Marshall said of his squad. "Obviously, it is going to be a lot harder with Cosby and James River being in our conference, but we are excited and expect to be at the top."
There is good reason for the type of optimism surrounding the program and it starts with their do-everything senior Collin Fleischer who gives the Knights' versatility with his ability to play third base, outfield and pitch on any given day. But most importantly, the senior produces at a high-level each and every game.
It's what earned him attention from college coaches across the area and eventually landed him a scholarship offer to attend the Virginia Military Institute for his skills on the diamond. Fleischer signed his National Letter of Intent in November of last year and at the time, Marshall had nothing but praise for his middle-of-the-order presence.
"He's a very versatile player for us. He's been an all-district player for his career and is obviously a tremendous player," Marshall said. "To be honest, he's probably one of the best hitters I've ever coached."
But that would discount the rest of the fearsome hitters Marshall has at his disposal.
Thomas Dale's manager can not help but smile as he thinks about the type of impact his lineup can have in the upcoming season. After all, his team returns 15 players from last year's squad, including three all-district performers.
Marshall believes his lineup which will include Maurice Gothe and Tommy Barron should give opposing team's fits with their ability to not only hit, but do so with authority with gap-to-gap power.
"I have five or six guys who can really mash it and hit really well at this level," Marshall said. "Collin is obviously the top dog, but we have other guys who can hit just like him."
And that will be a scary thought for opponents of the Knights throughout the season as they have focused on trying to eliminate a weakness they possessed last season.
While Thomas Dale had the offensive ability to challenge anyone, they often times found themselves with a maddening inability to come up with clutch hits when the situation dictated. Among their frustrating losses was a one-hitter to Matoaca and a 7-0 shutout to Prince George.
However, Marshall says the problem could be corrected with the extra year of experience under his team's belt as they get a better understanding of how to get themselves out of the prolonged slumps which doomed them at times last season.
"We had a lot of sophomores who were just starting to hit, so slumps are going to happen," Marshall said of his team's hitting. "We had a lot of guys who were really streaky ... the older guys knew what they needed to do, but hitting should be a strength."
Although the Knights will also have to deal with much tougher opposition as they reside in a conference with two perennial powerhouse teams in James River and Cosby. Winning as many games as possible throughout the course of the season is of critical importance if Thomas Dale wants to obtain a higher seed in the conference tournament and avoid facing the powerhouses in the early rounds.
But the competition can also make the Knights better, something Marshall hopes will be the case.
File Photo/The Hopewell News/News-Patriot
"The bottom-line is this team's mental make-up is that it won't bother them that we are taking a step up," Marshall said. "They are going to come at it with the same mentality they had in the past ... they will be confident."
The Knights will also be a hungrier team.
The players want to prove they belonged in the region tournament and can defeat the likes of Cosby after being knocked out of the playoffs by the Titans. It's just another added edge which can take the Knights to the next level.
"If we want to beat Cosby, then we need guys to start playing like them and step up," Marshall explained. "They're definitely ready to do that.
Added Fleischer, "We definitely want to beat them and get first in this new district. It would be nice to beat them the first game of the year."
While it would be just one game, a win would mean the world mentally to a team that has the ability to contend for the top spot in the conference and vanquishing a familiar foe could propel them to a memorable season.