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Denison bats will be key to playoff push

Jason Della Rosa
Herald Democrat
Denison's Logan Tilley will be part of an overhauled lineup as the Yellow Jackets start their season next week.

A lot has changed since the last time the Denison Yellow Jackets stepped on the diamond. Now as they gear up for their return, nearly the entire lineup will be different and an altered district makes it a little tougher to get back to the playoffs.

But the 10 months between pitches hasn’t been wasted.

“I think we’ve had the best off-season we’ve had since I’ve been on staff and we’re as prepared as best we can,” Denison head coach Brett Bollinger said. “We’ve been doing everything we can to be ready.”

All of that effort will begin to be on display as Denison opens the season at Saginaw Chisholm Trail at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

Just about nothing could have prepared any team for the abrupt ending to last year. The Jackets sat at 6-7 and were 0-1 in 10-5A play when everything was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It kept Denison from making the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season, something the program hadn’t achieved since a strtech from 1995-98. And while technically the streak can be viewed as intact — there were no playoffs to qualify for — it will take a lot of fresh faces chipping in to keep it going.

“I felt really good where we were at when we got shut down. The guys that are returning and even the young guys, we have the same expectations,” Bollinger said. “Obviously it wasn’t the way I planned on my first year. The good thing is I feel our program is in a good spot — we had over 55 guys try out and we have 46 on three teams. These guys know that with the freshmen and sophomores, there’s a lot of competition.”

Some of that competition is taking place not just in making the roster but for a spot in the batting order.

Denison had seven seniors who were major contributors — catcher Cayden Earnhart, pitcher Zander Ramey, infielders Luke Kirkbride and Coulter Maxson, outfielders Jack Condit and Garrett Poe and designated hitter Austen Patterson — and almost all of them had done so for multiple seasons.

Their graduation left a lot of holes in the lineup compared to the initial order that was basically set it stone heading in 2020. The sophomore class is heavily involved in making a push for playing time.

“There’s always going to be a learning curve for everybody’s first time on varsity,” Bollinger said. “I wouldn’t put them on the varsity level if they weren’t ready for it.”

One of the few mainstays is senior Cam Wheeler, a four-year starter who returns in center field and as the fulcrum in the middle of the lineup. He has signed to play with Grayson next season.

Classmate Logan Tilley, who missed the first part of last year due to injury, is in left field and junior Drew Meek takes over in right. Junior David Emerson will be an option off the bench.

When it comes to pitching options, one of those who expected to lead the staff won’t be available. Lefty Carson Baugh, who has signed with Seminole State, will miss his senior year due to an injury suffered in the past couple of weeks.

“Not something you want to see happen,” Bollinger said. “Carson was going to be one of our lead pitchers.”

That leaves Wheeler and senior Hunter Manning as the only hurlers with varsity innings under their belt.

Sophomore Canaan Farley is expected to be a starter while Emerson and junior Cooper Mackay and sophomores Garland Parker, Owen Ewton and Ethan Jaresh round out the staff.

Baugh was also expected to be at first base when not on the mound. Now the job will fall to Farley.

Up the middle Denison needs to replace a pair of four-year starters in Earnhart behind the plate and Kirkbride, who ended his career at short after beginning at second.

Junior Brendan Wolf will take over at catcher after filling in at times last season. Freshman Preston Paulson is the backup.

There is a competition for the starting shortstop job among Jaresh, Ewton and Ty Kirkbride, another sophomore.

Second base is another position that is open. Junior Peyton Johnson, who started around the infield in a utility role last year, and classmate Zaiden Ramey are in a battle for the job.

Parker is in line to be the starting third baseman but Jaresh or Johnson could also factor there based on the pitching choices.

Bollinger noted there isn’t a set designated hitter heading into the season but could be a spot that rotates.

“A bunch of these young guys are going to be good hitters so we’ll have to see how they fit in during these early tournaments,” Bollinger said.

In addition to non-district games against Melissa and Celina, the Jackets will compete in tournaments at Princeton, the Collin County Classic and Celina.

Denison will start the 10-5A schedule on March 16 and is again in a district with Sherman, McKinney North, Lovejoy, Princeton and Wylie East to go with the addition of The Colony and Prosper Rock Hill.

The teams went away from the home-and-home weekly schedule and back to the traditional setup of one match-up per each half of the district slate.

Non-district

What: Denison at Chisholm Trail

When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday