Kenton Ridge baseball coach Aaron Shaffer sets lofty goals each season — win 20 games, capture the Central Buckeye Conference Kenton Trail division and advance in the tourney to the state final four.
The Cougars have reached their first two objectives the last three years, but they haven’t played their way to Columbus since Shaffer’s first season in 2008.
They’ve had teams capable of reaching those heights, including last season when they dropped a 10-8 decision to Waynesville in the district finals. But the prep postseason is like March Madness in college basketball: the best teams don’t always win.
“We tell our guys, ‘Baseball is tough when you get in a single-elimination tournament. It’s one of those things where anybody can beat anybody, and you have to have a little luck,’ ” Shaffer said.
“We’re really close. Sometimes, when you’ve been that close, it makes you want to get back there even more and get over the hump and win it. That’s the mindset we have with these guys — get over the hump.”
The Cougars will have to overcome some youth and inexperience to surpass what they did last season. They have to replace pitchers Kaleb Meeks and Noah Schleinitz and hard-hitting catcher Luke Holt among several stalwarts.
Meeks, the Kenton Trail division player of the year, is pitching for Northern Kentucky, while Schleinitz, an all-league second-team pick, is playing for Cedarville. Holt led the CBC with eight homers and 30 RBIs while batting .351.
“We lost quite a bit — six seniors, and four of them were three-year starters,” Shaffer said. “We’re going to have a lot of new faces, but sometimes that can be a good thing. Guys are eager to go out and prove what they’re capable of.”
The Cougars have five senior starters, including four who were first-stringers on last year’s 22-7 team: pitcher Drew Wichael, outfielder Zach Schneider, corner infielder Bailey Armentrout and middle infielder Quinton Roach. Classmate Nick Corbin will make his starting debut as an outfielder this season.
Sophomore Calvin Dibert, a pitcher and outfielder who batted .330 in 2017, is the only other returning starter.
“Any time you lose those type of starters, there’s a leadership void to be filled, and we’re still looking to find those leaders to step up and take the place of the guys we lost,” Shaffer said. “It’s a process, and we’ll get there. We like what these young guys have done so far.”
Schneider hit .333 with 33 RBIs and was a first-team all-league pick, and the Cougars, who are scheduled to open the season Saturday at Waynesville, will need another big season from Wichael, their lone proven pitcher who went 6-1 with a 1.95 ERA last year.
“We’re really looking for that leadership from Drew,” Shaffer said. “He’s been through the ringer the last couple years. He’s got experience, and we’re going to lean on him to set the tone for everybody else, and, hopefully, it’ll trickle down to all our other pitchers.”
Wichael’s strength is his pinpoint control.
“He’s around the plate. He throws a lot of strikes and changes speeds,” Shaffer said.
The Cougars will fill holes in the lineup with infielder Jordan Ward, outfielder Garrett Kelly and pitcher Luke Haerr.
Despite the roster turnover, though, Shaffer isn’t lowering his standards.
“Guys understand what this program is about,” he said. “We’re big on history and we’re big on knowing who came before you. There’s always been an expectation to win, and guys have bought into it. They work hard, and it shows.”
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