After surprising some local prep baseball experts by leading his team to a solid 15-13 record last year, Francis Howell Central varsity baseball coach Ray Howard has been prepping for what many believe could be a big year for the Spartans in 2011.
Howell Central brings back several starters from last year, and have added several newcomers that Howard believes are ready to win a lot of games.
“We’re excited about the group we’ve got,” Howard said following the Spartans season-opening 9-1 win over Parkway North on Monday. “These guys work real hard, and do everything we ask. We’re looking forward to having a good year this year.”
One of the reasons why Howard is so excited about the coming season might be the return of catcher Jake Henson.
A three-year starter for the Spartans, and an all-GAC selection as a sophomore last season, Henson has been one of the most productive players in the area ever since he stepped on campus his freshman year.
Last year, he was fantastic for Howell Central at the plate, posting team-highs with a .431 batting average and 33 RBIs.
A phenomenal year by most standards, some might say Henson wasn't even as good as he was his freshman year, when he hit .357, with four homers and 28 RBIs.
This year though, college scouts and recruiters are expected to descend on Howell Central in droves, so they can get an up-close look at a player several scouting services have rated as one of the best catching prospects in the entire Midwest.
On the mound, senior Bryan Webb (4-0 in 2010) is the Spartans top returning arm. He led the team in wins and innings pitched, despite pitching mostly out of the bullpen.
Other standout returnees for Howell Central this season include, seniors Dominic Faron and Dylan Schindler, and juniors Dean Ballenger and Austin Boden.
“These guys play at a high level,” Howard said. “Most everybody we’ve got starting plays high level, ‘Select’ ball. These guys travel all over the country playing against top teams and top players. So most of these kids, they’ve played a lot of high-caliber baseball.”
Howard was also excited about several new players to the varsity, including junior centerfielder Josh Wade, sophomore shortstop Ryan Howard, and opening-day starter and winning pitcher on Monday, junior Scott Huesemann.
“I like our team a lot,” Howard said. “We’ve got a majority of juniors, only two seniors starting for us right now, so we’re still pretty young really. But we’ve got several guys I think will do a good job for us.”
One of the great challenges for Central this season will be competing in the always tough GAC South. Last year, the Spartans finished sixth in one of the area’s toughest leagues, which had just one team below .500, and three teams that topped the 20-win mark, including 2011 pre-season No. 1 Francis Howell.
“That’s what’s great about our league,” Howard said. “You gotta bring it every game. Every team in our league is good, and there’s no team you’re gonna just show up and beat.”
The Spartans will return to action this Saturday, when they’ll play Belleville West High in the “Illinois vs. Missouri Border War” showcase event at GCS Ballpark in Sauget, IL.
GCS Ballpark is the home of local minor league affiliate, the Gateway Grizzlies, and will serve as the host site for the seven-game, three-day showcase, which features top teams from Illinois taking on other top teams from Missouri.
Howell Central’s Saturday afternoon showdown with Belleville West is slated for a 2 p.m. first pitch.
The Spartans’ first true home game of the season will be Tuesday, April 5, when they’ll host Warrenton High at 4:15 p.m.