Talent Remains For The Knights
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Jun 2, 2014, 12:41
Blake Hartman will be expected to help produce runs as a middle-of-the-order hitter next season.
CHESTER — Before the 2014 season began, Thomas Dale's baseball team still could not quite turn the page from their season-ending loss one year prior to Cosby. The Titans had eliminated the Knights from the Region Tournament and they wanted to exact revenge during the upcoming season. However, the Knights would once again fall to the Titans, leaving them hungry for one more chance.
And after struggling out of the gates, losing three of their first four games, Thomas Dale picked up the pace. Strong pitching and timely hitting had them on a 13-game winning streak and a collision course with Cosby for the Conference 3 Tournament title. Both the Knights and Cosby had earned first-round byes, meaning just one win for both teams stood in the way of a third game between the two in one calendar year.
Yet, fate would not have the two duel with a championship on the line. The Knights' season came to a crashing halt in the semifinals against a James River team who jumped on ace Nathan Eaton in a four-run 5th inning while shutting down a dangerous lineup.
The big-inning, coupled with an inability to figure out James River starter Josh Winder, resulted in the Knights suffering an 8-1 loss and once again being filled with 'what ifs' and 'maybes.' All season long, defeating Cosby became a rallying cry for those who had experienced the disappointment one year prior. It was supposed to be payback for a senior class that has played a critical part of bringing the Thomas Dale program back to the elite.
But while the season did not end the way they wanted, it's just another cruel reality of how baseball is a game of inches. A wasted opportunity to get to Winder early while he struggled with command could have changed the game's complexion. Instead, the seniors trudged off the field, disappointed in not taking advantage of the clearest of chances.
"I told them I know the season didn't end the way they wanted it to, but that's baseball," Thomas Dale manager Chris Marshall said after the loss. "Especially in the switch-over from the Central District to this conference; it's tough. You're either going to play Cosby or James River to get to Region ... I give them all the credit. They played well and looked like a playoff team. It wasn't that we played, we just couldn't string together a few hits."
Although the Knights' players didn't accomplish what they set out to do before the season, the loss is also a learning experience for next season.
Thomas Dale suffered through an early-season swoon which witnessed them losing three out of their first four games. The slow-start frustrated the players and flummoxed their coach. But the Knights would turn it around, winning 13-straight games to grab a No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.
And while the senior class which included the likes of Collin Fleischer, the team's biggest power threat, Brian Goodwyn, the spark-plug in the No. 2 hole with great bat control, Maurice Gothe, a solid outfielder with a line-drive stroke and Taylor Trueheart, an all-around first baseman, the juniors also stepped up over the course of the season.
Blake Hartman, the team's starting rightfielder, made an immediate impact during his first year on varsity, belting a few home runs and leaving those in awe by his throwing arm. Eaton, the team's starting shortstop, became the Knights' ace pitcher with a mid 80s fastball and a sharp breaking-ball which allowed him to shutout lineups at will.
Then there was Corey Johnston and Tommy Barron who each played pivotal roles with their bat and arms — Barron even regained his form after a tough start to the season to become one of the more reliable Knights' pitchers nearing the end of the season.
Corey Johnston's bat and arm helped the Knights to a successful season and will be key again next year.
Each one of them experienced the heart-break of a season-ending loss and saw what it takes to contend in a tough conference, making it a key moment in their development.
"I told the younger guys on this team to learn from this," Marshall explained. "We have to rise up in big games. We played them twice and split, but this is the one that mattered of course. We have to rise up. If you want to beat the likes of James River and Cosby, you have to play at their level."
And there is little doubt the Knights can do such a thing even next season.
With a starting rotation likely to include Eaton, Barron and Johnston, the trio will make life tough on any opponent Thomas Dale could face over the course of the season. Couple the arms with the bat of Johnston and Hartman and there is the makings of a team that has the chance to contend once again if they can get the big hits when needed.
"Hopefully they see we need to hit the ball and put pressure on people to score runs," Marshall explained. "Ultimately, when you look back at the whole season, that was the big problem that held us back ... We defended and pitched well all year, but we didn't hit it when we needed to."
Much like one year ago, the Knights' season ended with a disappointing loss. But while the loss hurts, the pieces are still in place for Thomas Dale to do it all over again next season with a junior class ready to follow in the footsteps of a senior class who paved the way.