By Terry Boehmker
NKyTribune sports reporter
Seniors dominate the Conner baseball team’s lineup this spring. Some of them are varsity veterans and others are first-year starters, but they’ve all played well enough for the Cougars to get off to an 11-3 start.
“I can’t say anybody has been a real surprise,” said coach Brad Arlinghaus. “I expect these seniors to step up and follow in the footsteps of last year’s senior class.”
Last season, Conner tied a team record with 27 wins and made it to the 9th Region tournament for the sixth time in the last eight years. The Cougars’ campaign ended with a 6-5 loss to Beechwood in the region semifinals.
Six of the seniors returning from last year’s team are batting .310 or better through the first 14 games this season. The other senior standout is right-handed pitcher Nick Craddock, who has a 2-1 record in five starts with a 0.95 earned run average and 50 strikeouts in 29.1 innings.
“We go as they go,” Arlinghaus said of his core group of seniors. “It’s tough being a senior playing high school baseball because you’ve got prom and spring break and graduation and graduation parties. If you’ve got a group of seniors who are focused on the task at hand, you’ll be all right. As we keep creeping closer and closer to all those things, we’ll see what we’re made of.”
This is Craddock’s fourth and final season on the varsity pitching staff. He was a freshman pitcher on the 2013 Conner team that won the 9th Region title. He now has 22 career wins and needs six more to break the existing team record, but his main goal is helping the Cougars get to the regional playoffs once again.
“There’s a lot of story lines when it comes to this team,” Craddock said. “I want to be part of three regional tournament teams. That would be really cool.”
Seniors Tim Sherman and Juan Villegas are among the story lines mentioned by Craddock. During last year’s playoffs, Villegas was called up to the varsity roster after Sherman went into a hitting slump. Now they’re both starters and have the team’s top two batting averages.
Sherman is batting .517 (15 of 29) with three doubles and two triples. Villegas has a .410 average (16 of 42) that includes two doubles, two triples and a home run. The team’s third leading hitter is senior catcher Max Sims at .389 (14 of 36) with a team-high 11 runs batted in.
“I didn’t really have a good year last year,” said Sherman, who did some one-on-one work with coaches in the batting cage during the fall. “I was just hoping to come out my senior year and do good, and it’s paying off right now.”
The Cougars have a 3-1 record in one-run games this season. On Monday, they posted a 2-1 win over Ryle in a 33rd District seeding game that went 11 innings. The deciding run came home on a balk called against Ryle’s pitcher while attempting to throw out a runner stealing second.
Craddock was Conner’s starting pitcher in Monday’s game. He didn’t get the decision, but he gave up only one run on five hits in eight innings and had 11 strikeouts.
“We have struggled a little bit with our defense,” coach Arlinghaus said. “That’s one thing that we’ve been working on in practice and (Monday) we just played spectacular defense to hold Ryle to one run.”
The other Conner pitchers with multiple wins are junior Nolan Southers (3-0), senior Josh Ostertag (2-0) and junior Manny Henschen (2-1). They’ve helped the pitching staff post a 3.04 earned run average in 14 games.
The Cougars’ also have a .308 team batting average (111 of 360) with seniors leading the way. The team’s other .300 hitters are senior shortstop Griffin Henry, senior first baseman Brian Manning and senior outfielder Travis Connley.
“Not every group I’ve had talked about winning district and regional and going to state the way this group has,” said Arlinghaus, who got his 200th win as Conner’s coach earlier this season. “They know we have just as good a shot as anybody to come out of the 9th Region and play for a state championship.”