By Ray Hamill — The McKinleyville Panthers are hoping to see their experience pay off in 2019.
Baseball head coach Scott St. John returns the majority of the players from last year’s 13-10 team which placed second in league, and as a group they will be among the most experienced in the Big 5.
Whether that will be enough to get the better of Arcata, Eureka and the rest of the league teams remains to be seen, but McKinleyville fans have got to like their chances.
“We’re excited about the season,” second-year head coach Scott St. John said. “We’ve got 10 guys back from a second-place team in the Big 5. We’re excited about this year.”
For the Panthers, it all starts with Cameron Saso and Dustin Ireland.
Saso will play shortstop and lead a quality pitching staff, while Ireland is one of the best catchers in the county.
The senior catcher has seen his game continue to grow, and had an impressive summer in American Legion play, while Saso is pound for pound one of the best all-around players in the area, giving his coach a very reliable defensive option, as well as being a threat on the mound and at the plate.
“He’s probably one of the better pitchers in the Big 5,” St. John said of Saso.
The junior pitcher looked strong in the Panthers’ opener against Middletown earlier in the week, posting the win and adding a couple of hits, while Ireland threw out both Mustang baserunners trying to steal second.
Junior Kyler Carr gives the coaches another strong option on the mound, and will also play center field, while senior Lance Lally brings plenty of experience to the pitching staff and will also see time at shortstop.
“We feel we’ve got some pretty good pitching,” St. John said.
Emerging sophomore Corbin Eichin rounds out the staff and has also seen his game develop substantially since last spring.
At the plate, big things are expected out of senior Regan Wolfe, who will bat in the middle of the lineup as well as play first and third base, while talented sophomore T-Ryan Stumph will play outfield and DH.
Senior Chase Fisher and junior Jake Reeser are each also expected to play a big role both in the outfield and at the plate.
As for the Big 5, St. John is expecting a battle.
“Eureka and Arcata are going to be tough,” he said. “Arcata is always tough. They’re well coached and always fundamentally sound. Eureka is coming off winning the Big 5 last year and they’ve definitely got the talent.”
The coach, however, believes he has the talent and players at his disposal to be in the mix.
“We just want to compete,” he said. “The goal is always to win, of course.”
Two senior basketball standouts — Isaac Puzz and AJ Stubbs — also join the team for the first time this season, and each is expected to play a key role.
“They’re good athletes and they bring good leadership,” the head coach said.
Jack Patton, Mason Hooven, Mike Boatright, Aiden Weber and Anthony Eggink round out the roster.
After defeating Middletown 3-0 earlier in the week, the Panthers (1-0) will try to keep the winning momentum going in a pair of games in Lake County this weekend, playing at Kelseyville on Friday and at Clear Lake on Saturday.