By Tony Adams, Sports Editor
The 2015 Belton Tigers Baseball team started off 2-7 in their tournament schedule and played against some of the top teams in the state.
From that point on, they embarked on a 19-game winning streak. The streak made them undefeated in District 12-6A play, earned a sweep in the bi-district round against Tyler Lee and the first game of the Irving Nimitz area series. The streak was the state’s second longest, next to Dallas Jesuit’s 26-game streak.
The season was ended with two losses at Grand Prairie’s Airhogs Stadium.
In 2015, the Tigers hit .315 and had an on-base percentage (OBP) of .388, clouting 10 homers and driving home 134 runs, while scoring 149. Belton pitching only allowed 79 runs and had an earned run average (ERA) of 4.32 in a seven-inning formula and 2.78 in a nine-inning formula, striking out 229 batters and walking 94.
“The surprising thing of the preseason has been our hitting,” Belton head coach Eddie Cornblum said. “I think that will go good with our strengths of pitching and defense.”
Cornblum and assistants Mark Krueger and Darin Blomquist have their coffers full of homegrown talent that are looking to make an impression and guide Tiger Nation to the state stage at Dell Diamond in Round Rock in June.
The Tigers have great talent in the outfield, with Trent Stafford (.234, 9 RBIs, .347 OBP), Xavier Haines, Tyler Kastner, Ethan Gilmore, Andrew Kendall, Trey Bell, Breck Potvin and Tyler Rhea. All have great arms and are quick.
“Trent is an asset to us in right field and on the mound,” Cornblum said. “The interesting thing to us is what will happen with Trent is on the mound. We’ve been playing well in the outfield so far. We don’t have a lot of outfielders, but they have been playing well. They all have plus arms, hit their cut-off men and track down balls in the outfield. And they’re swinging.”
The infield is a great one, returning three starters in District 12-6A Most Valuable Player Hobey Hiland (.333, 2 HRs, 18 RBIs, team-leading 13 doubles, .387 with runners in scoring position, .398 OBP), shortstop in Miguel Quinones (.275, 11 RBIs, .310 with runners in scoring position) and Brandon Rudy (.306, 5 RBI, .400 with runners in scoring position manning third base, shortstop and second base respectively. First base will be an interesting fill after the graduation of three-year starter Chase Sortor. Reese Hohhertz (.389, 7-of-18 in pinch-hitting situations, 3 RBIs), Shane Mejia and Remington Lutz will both see time at first. Potvin, Mark Reynolds, Eric Hoffman, Aaron Krueger, Gilmore and Logan Earl provide the Tigers with lots of infield depth and any one of them may be called upon in a moment’s notice.
“Hobey was an unbelievable surprise to us last year,” Cornblum said. “Being a JV guy the year before and not sure how he was going to mix in, all of sudden he was District 12-6A MVP and all that came with that. He’s been a great player. We have Miguel back and he’s already made some plays that makes you sit back and go ‘Wow!’ He’s swinging the bat well and opening up some eyes. Over at first, you have Reese who we have converted from catcher and DH to first base. He moves well over there and has taken control of the position since August 26. Remington Lutz has been moved up from JV and will pitch and play first base. Brandon Rudy and Eric Hoffman are over at second. Brandon is the returner and both are playing well. Eric is pesky on the bases and he can move a little bit.”
The Tigers carry two solid catchers in Nathan Vail and Collin Mask (.387, 12-of-31, a mammoth HR at Tiger Field, 3 RBI, .357 with runners in scoring position, .414 OBP). Both handle the pitching staff expertly and can swing the bat well.
“Nathan Vail is back and was a DH most of the year last year,” Cornblum said. “Right now, Vail appears to be the starting catcher and Mask will DH. Both are playing well and Mask is hitting the ball extremely well.”
The designated hitter role will have multiple candidates, with Lutz, Hohhertz, Vail, Mask and Krueger
Belton’s arms arsenal is one of the best in the area, with three senior starting pitchers returning. MCC commit Tanner Frick (7-0, 59 1/3 innings pitched, 3.30 seven-inning ERA/2.12 nine-inning ERA, 66 strikeouts, 28 walks, .234 opponents batting average, 65 percent first-pitch strike rate), TC commit Cameron Whitman (4-1, 43 innings, 3.58 seven-inning ERA, 2.30 nine-inning ERA, 46 strikeouts, 18 walks, .213 opponents batting average, 63 percent first-pitch strike rate) and Stafford (6-0, 42 1/3 innings pitched, 3.64 seven-inning ERA, 2.34 nine-inning ERA, 50 strikeouts, 15 walks, .222 opponents batting average, 59 percent first-pitch strike rate) are the returning starters. While Frick and Stafford deal from the left, Whitman deals from the right. Haines, Lutz, Kastner, Mejia, Hiland and Krueger will all see spot start and relief duties throughout the season.
“We like Kastner, he has a live arm,” Cornblum said. “He’s working on controlling the zone a little bit more and we have to control the pitch count. We have a sophomore up on varsity named Shane Mejia. He’s thrown some nice innings for us this spring. Another sophomore that we have brought up that has pitched and swung the bat well so far is Aaron Krueger. He is backing up Hobey and learning, so he has a shot. We have got a lot of seniors, but we are mixing in the young guys because you have to continue to develop talent.”
“Being able to throw strikes and getting that first out is a key,” Blomquist said. “Throughout the first three or four scrimmages, we have really done that. In the first scrimmage against Rudder, we struck out a whole bunch of batters and didn’t walk very many. It was the same thing against Brenham, but we didn’t do it very well against Cedar Park. Against Round Rock, we threw a lot of strikes and got a lot of ground balls. Didn’t strike out as many, but Round Rock is a good team. The defense playing behind the guys is really important.”
The pitching in the preseason has looked impressive in the preseason scrimmages.
“The pitching to this point has been at the level that we though it would be,” Cornblum said. “I like our arms and I think that it is a plus going into the season.”
The schedule is one of the most challenging in the state. The opening game is Thursday (Feb. 25, 1 p.m. Dragon Field) against Class 6A No. 2 Round Rock at the Round Rock Hardball Classic and the day ends at Stony Point High (7 p.m., 6:50 p.m. pregame on KTEM-AM 1400, KTEMNews.com and Radio Pup Application). Hardball will continue back at Dragon Field Friday against Cedar Ridge (10 a.m.) and at Lions Field in Leander against Midland (4 p.m.). The tournament ends at McNeil’s Maverick Field at 4 p.m. Saturday (3:50 p.m. on KLTD-FM 101.7).
The Langerhans-Bratcher Invitational finds the Tigers back in Round Rock, taking on Humble Kingwood Park on March 3 (4 p.m.), March 4th with a game each at Warrior Field against Keller Fossil Ridge (4 p.m.) and home-standing Westwood at (7 p.m.) and March 5 at Stony Point’s Tiger Field against Lewisville (Pregame at 9:50 a.m. on KLTD-FM 101.7, 10 a.m. first pitch) and Stony Point (4 p.m.).
The Scotland Yard Classic will be some of the best baseball on the schedule. The Tigers will play Class 6A No. 1-ranked Coppell at Cowboy Field at 4 p.m. on March 10 and play four games over two days at historic Scotland Yard in Highland Park. The Tigers take on the Scots and Midland on March 11 (11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. respectively) and on March 12 they will take on Garland Sachse and Lovejoy (Pregame at 9:50 a.m. on KLTD-FM 101.7, 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. first pitches).
“We’ve told the kids that there’s no days off with this schedule,” Cornblum said. “It’s tough, but you don’t want to play any tournaments that are easy. You want teams that are the best, so that you have those games to hang your hat on. Round Rock is fun to play, with every guy 6’1 or taller. Stony Point has all of their infielders back that are small, pesky and fun to watch. Midland, Cedar Ridge and McNeil round out that tournament. Every game is going to be tight.”
The District 12-6A schedule will start March 15 against Shoemaker. There are two non-district games intermingled in the 12-game district schedule, with the Tigers hosting Class 6A No. 15 Lake Travis at 2 p.m. on April 2 and playing Coppell at Dallas Baptist University at 7 p.m. on April 16.
Playing Class 6A No. 1-ranked Coppell twice will certainly be a challenge for the Tigers.
“I don’t know if I am smart or stupid,” Cornblum joked. “But when Kendall (Coppell head coach Kendall Clark) asked me if we wanted to play and I said “absolutely”. We have had fun playing them the last couple of years and have had great games against them. We beat them in a game five of the Highland Park Tournament a couple of years ago. They beat us last year. And then when I read that they had the number one rated pitching staff in the nation, I don’t know if I am beating myself up or excited. I’m looking forward to it and it will be a good challenge for the team. The only way you can get better is to play the best teams that there are.”
The district shakes out pretty well. Midway is always loaded with bats, fielding and pitching. Harker Heights is improving with each season, with a good offense and pitchers Tyler Torres and Daniel Cole. Copperas Cove returns a solid outfielder in Tim Bechtold and the Killeen schools all have good athletes in all of the positions.
“I really like Heights,” Cornblum said. “Randy (Harker Heights head coach Randy Culp) has done a great job over there and he has Tyler and Daniel coming back. They’re going to be tough. I miss the Bryan/Consolidated/Temple/Heights days because it is just like playing the tournaments and all the preparations for it. The Midway games will be tight games, as will Heights. Dusty Brittain has done a great job over there in Cove and coach (Donald) Trcka at Killeen High has his guys playing well. I just think that the district has gotten better in the last year or two.”
There are two new signs that are hanging at Belton Tiger Field: Win The Day and 47 Miles to State, stating the distance from BHS to Dell Diamond. The Tigers have won district championships in five of the last seven seasons, including three straight between 2013 and 2015.
“The cohesiveness of the team was the first goal in the fall and they mastered it,” Cornblum said. “We now understand the dynamics that our team brings each day to the field and the next goal is to win each day at practice by understanding what we need to improve on. The tournaments are to prepare us for district. Get our pitchers a lot of innings in preparation for district. Obviously, the next goal is to win district and gear up for a playoff run.”