By Ray Hamill — A young McKinleyville Panthers team made some big strides last spring and head coach Scott St. John and his staff will be hoping they will continue to develop this season.
The Panthers are still young, with their top three pitchers and catcher all underclassmen, but there are signs suggesting this team is maturing together and finally seeing some dividends from the strongest local Little League program.
“It’s exciting,” the head coach said. “Because they’re young guys who are hard-working guys that love baseball.”
Almost half the roster are either freshmen or sophomores, including a strong second-year class that gained some valuable experience while playing for the team in 2021.
“I would hope that they’ll be a little better at everything, because we made a lot of mistakes last year,” St. John said. “Defensively we’ll be a lot better, but we’ll still have some growing pains.”
Sophomores Evan Fraser and Branson Dobrec will carry much of the load on the mound, along with junior Riley Bates, and all three got the new season off to a good start in a doubleheader sweep at Willits on Saturday.
The Panthers will also be young behind the plate, with sophomore Tenoch Tapia getting the start, although St. John is hoping his six seniors will provide some leadership at the plate.
“They’ve got potential to help us in the batting order, and we’ll need that,” he said of the seniors.
In particular, senior infielder Brodie Sargent will be relied on to provide some punch in the middle of the lineup, while the coaches are also hoping seniors Brayden Craven and Austin Brown will bring some experience to the pitching staff while also making some noise at the plate, along with Logan Maher.
Junior infielder Jack Saso also “has the potential to have a good year for us,” according to the coach, and got the new campaign off to a good start with a clutch hit to drive in the winning run in extra innings at Willits.
Overall, the roster has impressed the coaches during the preseason.
“The first three weeks of practice were just phenomenal,” St. John said. “The kids are hungry and they love the game, and that shows when they show up for practice.”
The McKinleyville Little League and the Northern Humboldt Steelheads travel teams have all enjoyed plenty of success in recents years, and St. John is hoping that will now start to pay off for the Panthers.
“We’ve got the biggest Little League in the county and we’ve got to capitalize on that and keep everybody at home,” St. John said. “And it’s exciting. Our coaching staff is very excited about this year and moving forward.”