Argyle coach Ricky Griffin prepared for the 2019 season under the impression he would have to find a way to motivate the Eagles to approach the year the same way they did last season, when the Class 4A state champions put together one of the most impressive runs in UIL baseball history by finishing a perfect 37-0.
It didn’t take Griffin long to realize his job would be much easier than he had anticipated.
Griffin said Argyle, which has 10 returners who have committed to or signed with Division I programs, attacked the first few weeks of practice with a chip on its shoulder as the Eagles look to repeat as state champs for the first time.
“We’re having practices that used to take two hours and getting them done in an hour and a half,” Griffin said. “They’re running around, taking it seriously and playing hard. I thought I was going to have to be a dramatic ‘Win one for the Gipper’ speech type of guy, and I haven’t said a thing. I just told them I’m so proud of them coming out here with a businesslike approach.
“I didn’t know how they’d react after being college commits or signees in their senior year. But I really think they do have a chip on their shoulder to do it again. They’re having a blast like they always do, but they are getting their work done. We’re out of here in an hour and a half, and I’m loving it.”
Bryson Hudgens, now pitching at Weatherford College, is the only key contributor gone from last year’s team. The Eagles’ entire starting infield — third baseman Cade Merka (.273, 14 RBIs), shortstop Brenden Dixon (.422, 21 RBIs, nine triples, three home runs), second baseman Preston King (.462, 34 RBIs, 11 doubles, three HRs) and first baseman Chad Ricker (.369, 32 RBIs, 11 doubles) — returns, as does the entire outfield in LF Alex Gonzales (.429, 22 RBIs), CF Dillon Carter (.375, 24 RBIs, 46 runs, 11 doubles) and RF Hayden Clearman (.455, 44 RBIs, 13 doubles).
Catcher Austin King (.360, 29 RBIs) is back, as is top pitcher Sean Bolin (10-0, 62 1/3 innings, 56 strikeouts).
Ricker, who threw 39 innings as the Eagles’ third option on the mound and went 7-0 with a team-best 0.36 ERA, will fill Hudgens’ role in the rotation alongside Bolin. Carter and Tate Van Poppel also are expected to see more innings as pitchers.
“My biggest job is to let these guys know that last year was awesome but I don’t think people knew quite what we had entering the season,” Griffin said. “There are no surprises this year. We’re the team everybody wants. We have to be a better team and we have to play better this year, or we might not make it to Austin.”
No. 1 Argyle will certainly face tougher competition, as the Eagles are set to compete in three of the state’s toughest tournaments to open the season. The team opens play at Laredo’s Border Olympics against La Joya at 11:15 a.m. Thursday and will compete in the Collin County Tournament from Feb. 28 to March 2.
The Eagles then will take part in the Highland Park tournament March 7 and 8, where they’ll play Keller (No. 3 in Class 6A), Prosper, Dallas Jesuit, Southlake Carroll (No. 7 in 6A), Coppell and Rockwall.
District 8-4A play will begin March 29 against Decatur.
“People look at the schedule and say, ‘Well, you’re really not worrying about the undefeated season this year,’” Griffin said. “But we didn’t worry about it last year. If we come to play every time we’re on the field, we’re going to have a chance to win every game.
“I didn’t schedule the tougher schedule so we’d get beat and wouldn’t have to talk about being undefeated. But I scheduled the tougher schedule because I think we’re at a point in the program where we need to play those people so it pushes our guys.”
Denton-area preview capsules
Liberty Christian Warriors
Coach: Johnny Isom
District: TAPPS 1-6A
2018 record: 29-12-1
Key returners: Joe Wolf, 1B/P, Sr.; Brett Huff, 3B/P, Sr.; Pryor Thomas, SS/P, Sr.; Creighton Hansen, OF/1B/P, Sr.; Colson Powers, C, Sr.
Key newcomers: Jacob Hasty, P, Sr.
2019 outlook: The Warriors are coming off a state title and appear primed to defend that title with Wolf, who led TAPPS with the lowest earned run average, and Hasty, who led TAPPS in strikeouts last year before transferring to Liberty in the offseason. An embarrassment of riches at nearly every position makes Liberty one of the more complete units in TAPPS. “If they can gel together and be more consistent on offense, they can be really scary,” coach Johnny Isom said. “They have all the pieces you need.”
Lake Dallas Falcons
Coach: Ryan Howard
2018 record: 19-16, 12-2 in District
Key returners: Ryan Depperschmidt, pitcher, Sr.; Kyle York, catcher, Sr.; Ryan Hull, shortstop/outfielder, Sr.
Key newcomers: Connor Perry, DH, Jr.; Ben Price, infielder, Jr.; Will Hirneise infielder, Jr.
2019 outlook: Led by first-team Denton Record-Chronicle All-Area Baseball Team pitcher Ryan Depperschmidt, Lake Dallas will be looking to build on a quality season with its returners while integrating plenty of new faces into its game.
At the helm, Ryan Howard returns excited to see his team’s physical growth and sound play on the diamond once again. The Falcons begin their season this weekend at the McKinney North tournament.
“We’ve got a team that’s returning a lot of varsity experience, and we have a lot of senior leadership,” Howard said. “We’ve really focused on getting physically stronger this offseason. We spent a lot of time in the weight room in the fall, and it has shown. Coming into the year, I thought we had our baseball skills — we just had to strengthen our bodies to make the skills jump off the field for us.”
Coach: Matt McBrayer
2018 record: 16-14
Key returners: Brooks Garrett, P/1B, Sr.; Cole Lee, SS/P, Sr.; Tanner Dieleman, 3B/P, Jr.; Trey Smith, 2B/P, Jr.; Lane Golden, CF, Jr.; Matthew Donley, C, So.
Key newcomers: none
2019 outlook: Coach Matt McBrayer is aware his team will have its hands full against a district that includes defending Class 4A champion Argyle, but if there’s a team he believes can go far, it would be this one. “If I could look back to three years ago when these seniors were freshmen to now, I would say this was going to be the year I envisioned us competing for a district title and a deep playoff run. The expectations are high. We have a team that can compete with anyone.”
Coach: Steve Ford
2018 record: 16-16
Key returners: Erik Ly, CF, Sr.; Cade Hamilton, 3B, Sr.; Hagen Coin, SS, Sr.; Caleb Freeman, UTIL, Sr.
Key newcomers: Bryon Dallas, OF/P, Jr.
2019 outlook: Despite injuries to their top three pitchers in 2018, the Sanger Indians overcame adversity and earned a trip to the area round of the playoffs. The Indians will rely on their seven returning starters to try to make a run further in Class 4A this season.
“I think we’ll have a good shot to go two or three rounds this season, and then we’ll see what happens from there,” coach Steve Ford said.
In 2018, Sanger was in a district with state champion Argyle. Argyle has moved to Region I, and the Indians will play teams such as Aubrey, Celina and Melissa, which knocked Sanger out of the playoffs last year.
“This is a different group than I’ve ever had,” Ford said. “A lot of challenges and a lot of unknowns coming into the season. So far, a lot of unknowns are coming out to be pleasant surprises, so I’m excited to see what that manifests itself into.”
Coach: Nate Henry
2018 record: 16-15-1
Key returners: Parker Brogdon, P, Sr.; Austin McCallion, 1B, Sr.; Jaeger Self, CF, Jr.; Jaxon Holder, SS, So.; AJ Prince, OF, Jr.; Isaac Ashlock, C, Jr.
Key newcomers: Bryce Bacon, 2B, Jr.; Jack Fetters, 3B, Jr.; Gage Gray, OF, Jr.; Jacob Holder, UTIL, Fr.; Derek Miller, P/1B, Jr.; Aidan Ryan, UTIL, Jr.; Zak Taylor, P, So.
2019 outlook: Aubrey returns a good amount of talent from a team that advanced to the second round of the playoffs before running into Argyle, and the Chaparrals are adding an influx of talent from a strong JV squad. After winning back-to-back bi-district titles for the first time, expectations continue to rise for coach Nate Henry’s squad. “We’re looking to build off the last two seasons and take it even further,” Henry said. “We will be pretty athletic on defense and balanced throughout the lineup, and there is a lot of pitching depth — we have a bunch of guys who can throw.”
Coach: Jacob Kreamer
2018 record: 4-16
Key returners: Gage Rider, OF/P, Sr.; Caden Koerbacater, C, Jr.; Hunter Kulesz, third base, Sr.; Max Hollar, outfield, So.; Jimmy Hoover, outfield, Jr.; Connor Lynch, first baseman, Jr.; Bryson Griffin, second base, Sr.; Reid Riney, shortstop, Sr.; Reid McGuire, third base, Sr.
Key newcomers: Collin Haynes, P, So.
2019 outlook: The Pilot Point Bearcats will rely on experience from eight key players who started for last year’s playoff team, with a new face leading the way.
Jacob Kreamer served as an assistant coach for Pilot Point last year before being promoted to head coach. Kreamer said excitement continues to build as the Bearcats start to play their nondistrict games.
Pilot Point lost to Van Alstyne in the first round of the playoffs last season. This year, the Bearcats will try to use experience to compete for the District 9-3A title against teams such as Gunter, Ponder and Whitesboro.
“I’m really excited,” Kreamer said. “We have a lot of guys back and only graduated two seniors from last year. They’ve been in a lot of different game situations and some of these guys have been starting since they were freshmen, so I’m excited to see how they perform.”
Coach: Mark Low
2018 record: 13-10
Key returners: Logan Ivy, C, Sr.; Cameron Clark, SS/OF, Sr.; Caden Doolittle, SS, Sr.; Ben Rodgers, 1B, Jr.
Key newcomers: Zeke Vetrano, P, Jr.
2019 outlook: Coach Mark Low lost only two contributors from a team that faltered toward the end of the season and barely missed the playoffs. The shortcoming made the offseason practices and reps all the more focused, with a goal of learning from last year and taking that next step.
The depth of this team has allowed Low to motivate his players and gives him flexibility with his lineup. Low is excited to see his deep pitching staff go to work and have success.
“We should have made the playoffs, but we didn’t,” Low said. “They remember what it felt like and have dedicated themselves to getting better over the offseason, and I think we have gotten better. It helps when you have a majority of your kids back, and they’re hungry to come back this year and make up for last year’s struggles.”