Last year, Hampton’s baseball team had to overcome youth in the field.
Expect an improved team on the diamond this spring. The Bulldogs’ 2012 squad has already made gains early in the season, according to coach Matthew Hardin.
And should some key players return to the squad this season, the Dogs, who moved to 1-2 with Monday’s victory over Cloudland, are looking to improve in Watauga Valley Conference play.
“(There’s been) a lot of improvement,” said Hardin. “They’ve improved quite a bit since the end of last year in basic knowledge of the game. Last year, we had to play a lot of freshmen and they tend to get intimidated from time to time. These kids have got some experience under their belt and are a little bit more relaxed playing the game now.
“For instance, last year Johnson County beat us like a drum up there and run ruled us. It was ugly. The first game this year we went up there and played them a 6-5 ballgame and had a 5-1 lead on them at one point. A lot of improvement with this crew.”
The Bulldogs lineup features one of the biggest power-hitters locally in senior first baseman Taylor Edwards.
Edwards feels this team has the most potential of any he’s been on at Hampton, including the squad that keyed the Bulldogs’ last winning season two years ago.
“There’s a lot of improvement,” Edwards said. “There’s still room for improvement, but we’ve gotten much better. We should be able to compete in our conference better than we have in any years past. We have more talent this year than we had my sophomore year and I’m expecting to go pretty far. I hope it happens.
“I want to see my team win. We haven’t had a winning season since my sophomore year. As far as the big bat goes, that just happens. I want to see my team succeed this year. I want to go back to the district and have a shot at winning it at least.”
Edwards will be joined by another power hitter in Johnson County transfer Tristan Robinson, who made his return to the squad Monday after an early season injury. Robinson, a sophomore, will hold onto the third base spot.
“He’s got a little bit of pop in his bat too,” Hardin said of Robinson. “He hasn’t been able to play yet because he had a collision with his brother during a batting practice drill and a spike put a gash in his knee. He ended up having about 28 stitches, 14 on the outside and inside. … He will be playing third base and he’s pretty much sewed that position up for most of the year.”
Along with Edwards, senior Justin Adkins will start in right field. The Bulldogs will have two juniors in the lineup in pitcher Mark Ailport, who made the move from centerfield to shortstop when he isn’t on the mound, and Josh Henegar at second.
Henegar will split time in the infield with sophomore Jeffrey Hughes, who is out with with a sore arm along with fellow classmate T.J. Hicks, both of whom will be used on the mound.
Other sophomore starters include catcher Dallas Clawsen, centerfielder John Cox, Anthony Oliver in left field and Nathaniel Townsend, who will see some time in the outfield.
“We’re blessed with a plethora of outfielders,” said Hardin.
Freshman Stone Hutchinson will also pitch and share some time in the infield.
As far as conference play goes, Hardin says like any other year Unaka’s still the team with the target on their back.
“Unaka’s been the team to beat in the conference forever,” Hardin said. “Until somebody knocks them off they’re the king of the hill. North Greene’s going to be tough as is University High. Nobody’s going to be able to overlook Cloudland.
“It’s pretty even from top to bottom. There’s not any games where you can go out there and push autopilot and go home.”