By Greg Bates
Times Press sports correspondent
Coming off an 8-10 record, the Seymour baseball players are optimistic about this season.
The seven seniors on this year’s team are going to do everything in their power to right the ship.
“It motivates us a lot because ever since we were 13, we’ve always wanted to obviously make it to state,” senior Hunter Clark said.
Seymour coach Curt Jefson believes his guys are hungry to get the Thunder back to their winning ways.
“I see that and I think we’re ready,” Jefson said. “Last year for everybody in the state it was a weird year because you had the weather.”
Seymour lost just three players, two who were all-conference members, to graduation. Gone are third baseman/pitcher Trevor Cornell, shortstop Nick Volz and center fielder/pitcher Caleb Derus, so a solid group of players return.
“It makes everything so much easier when you’ve got guys that understand the pace you want to practice at, the terminology, they know the drills,” Jefson said.
Mixed in with the core of seniors is a handful of young, talented players who Jefson has been impressed with during early-season practices.
“The bottom line is the older guys are good, but the younger guys are a little bit ahead of our normal group of sophomores or juniors, which will be helpful,” Jefson said.
For the first time since 2010, Seymour is taking a trip down to Florida for a chance to play some games against unfamiliar opponents and have a bonding experience. Twelve players are headed to Florida from March 27 to April 1. The Thunder will play four games – two games against Florida teams, one each against New York and Illinois squads — and one scrimmage.
“Hopefully it gets us a leg up and gets our arms feeling good and our bats feeling good when we come back to 35 degrees,” Jefson said. “We’re going to learn a lot about each other on and off the field and hopefully these guys make a lot of memories that last a lifetime.”
Once Seymour returns from Florida, it is scheduled to have five games in seven days, so a good start to the season is necessary.
How do the Thunder get off to a strong start?
“You emphasize the little things,” Jefson said. “We’re doing a little bit less in practice and trying to do what we do better. You have to really break it down into smaller pieces and we’re just trying to rep it, rep it, rep it. I think we’ve done a better job of that so far.”
Jefson knows his team will rely on defense to win games. He has a good 1-2 pitching punch with seniors Trent Blake and Kendal Lecker.
“Trent’s going to be the stalwart,” Jefson said. “He’s going to be the guy who carries the load, and we’ve got Kendal Lecker, who was really pitching pretty well last year before he got hurt during the season. I think he pitched pretty well in the Legion season after he came off the injury he got in the West De Pere doubleheader. I feel very confident in those two for the first two starters roles.”
Blake is a good all-around athlete who played well during the football and basketball seasons. Jefson coached Blake during football and he saw his athlete embrace a bigger leadership role.
“He’s raised his level of intensity about what he’s doing,” Jefson said. “I saw it on the basketball court in that game he had against Menasha on senior night. So far, so good.”
According to Jefson, his Nos. 3-5 starting pitchers and relievers are still up in the air, but he has some viable options. Clark will be in the mix along with junior left-hander Peyton Gritt, who logged some innings a season ago.
“I think we’ll be very solid as long as our pitchers are able to throw strikes,” Clark said. “We’ve been struggling with that for the past couple of years. Hopefully we can have some young guys come up and help us.”
With the departure of Cornell and Volz on the left side of the infield, Jefson is in search of finding capable replacements. Those spots are up for grabs but senior Peyton Dorn could move over from second base to shortstop and younger brother Mason is also in the conversation.
“I think we should know more when we come back from Florida,” Jefson said.
At third base, junior Sam Palubicki and sophomore Aiden Linsmeyer are battling it out for the starting job.
Owen Geurts is back at catcher. Seymour has another solid backstop in Jason VanDenLangenberg. Jefson is hoping if VanDenLangenberg doesn’t catch, he could be out in right field since he’s a strong athlete.
Clark could be in left field and possibly center field. However, Gritt or junior Bryce Kuske could get the starting spot in center field, said their coach.
When Blake and Lecker aren’t on the mound, they will be trading off at first base.
Offensively, Seymour has back some strong hitters. Blake had a batting average over .400 a season ago and is a good contact hitter.
“I expect him to be really strong up there along with Owen,” Jefson said. “Those two guys just crushed the ball last year. Peyton (Dorn) and Hunter, as seniors, they’ve put in the work and they love the game, and Kendal, too.”
Jefson noted his offense isn’t going to be too flashy and score a ton of runs, but it will be solid after averaging 5.9 runs per game in 2018.
Said Clark: “I believe more than half of our lineup will be able to put the ball in play consistently, move the ball around.”
Seymour is coming off a fifth-place finish in the Bay Conference with a 5-7 mark. Jefson is hoping his guys can battle for a top-three place this year.
On paper, West De Pere is the overwhelming favorite to win its fifth straight conference crown. The Phantoms are loaded, according to Jefson, after going 13-2 in the league.
“I think it’s West De Pere and the rest of us are battling, and we’ll battle,” Jefson said.
New London took second last year at 10-4 and has a new coach, Greg Shepard, who Jefson coached with previously in Seymour.
The rest of the conference race could be up in the air.
“I think the way our team is built, we’re not going to be very easy to beat,” Jefson said.