Gaston players hope to get an automatic state playoff berth

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Gaston senior Levi Watkins delivers a pitch during a Northwest League baseball game against Faith Bible last season. The fate of a season can never be traced back to a solitary event — one game, one at-bat, one error, one pitch.

But Gaston baseball coach Sean Casey can say with relative certainty that the Hounds’ 2012 season came down to just one week.

With rain-outs piling up and make-up dates becoming scarce, Casey’s squad was forced to play six games in one week against Portland Christian and Knappa — the top two teams in the Northwest League.

The compressed schedule resulted in all four of the Greyhounds’ league losses, dropping the team into third place and forcing Gaston to win back-to-back games to play its way into the state playoffs.

The Hounds won their first game but lost the second, leaving them out of the playoff mix despite the program’s best season in nearly a decade.

“We made it through the league unscathed until that one week,” Casey said. “We were just totally depleted that week and we lost a couple games that wound up costing us a shot at the state playoffs.”

Gaston graduated six seniors from last year’s team, but returns four upperclassmen and 11 sophomores, most of whom cut their teeth at the varsity level last year. That gives Casey a strong base of returning talent, and this year the Hounds are hoping to win a league title and earn an automatic berth to the Class 2A state playoffs.

Chief among the Greyhounds’ returning players will be senior Levi Watkins, a First Team All-League pitcher and infielder who anchored the team’s rotation last year while striking out more than 100 batters. He will be joined by fellow seniors Josh Davis, a pitcher and first baseman, and Jackson Morgan, the team’s starter in right field.

“Jackson and Levi are my two big bats in the middle of the lineup,” Casey said. “Their batting averages are already a lot higher this year than they were at the same point last year. I think their work in the offseason is really paying off.”

Another key returner will be junior catcher Joey Stark, who hopes to fill the shoes of four-year starter Adam Johnson, who graduated last spring. Freshman Jared Davis, the younger brother of Josh Davis, will also compete for playing time behind the plate.

“We’ve got about four guys who could share time at catcher,” Casey said. “We’ve been rotating them and trying to get all of them some playing time. They’ll share time until we figure out who our main guy will be.”

The bulk of the roster will consist of 11 sophomores, many of whom broke into the varsity lineup last year as freshmen.

Kyle Casey, the head coach’s son, battled arm troubles last season that limited his time on the mound, but he figures to be the Greyhounds’ No. 2 starter behind Watkins. Both pitchers throw hard and should give Gaston a lethal combination in the rotation.

“We’re hoping to have Kyle back on the mound this year,” Sean Casey said. “We threw him last week with Levi and in six innings they combined for 17 strikeouts. We haven’t had that before. As long as they both stay healthy, we should have a pretty good 1-2 punch. They’ve both got good velocity and good offspeed stuff.”

Sophomore Trevor Reynolds also figures to be in the pitching rotation.

“He doesn’t have all the experience that Kyle and Levi have, but he’s a workhorse,” Casey said of Reynolds. “He seems to be able to throw a lot of innings and not get tired, so that will be good for us.”

Sophomore twins Alex and Ryan Sweet will also feature prominently this year, with Ryan patrolling center field and Alex earning time as the designated hitter while he recovers from arm problems.

“Ryan is real solid in center field. He’s probably our best outfielder,” Casey said. “He’s got good speed and has played a lot of outfield in his career.

“Alex is having some arm trouble so he’s DHing right now. His hitting is really coming around. He came on strong at the end of last season, so hopefully he can build on that.”

Ty Henderson is another sophomore who could step into a more prominent role in 2013.

“He didn’t see much time last year, but he’s been playing in the outfield and doing a really good job for us so far,” Casey said.

Keith Flaig is a returning senior who broke his arm during basketball season, and Casey said he hopes Flaig can return by the end of the year. Peter May is a first-year player who could also see some time in the outfield.

All in all, Casey said he feels good about his team’s chances of competing for a league title and making its first state playoff appearance since 2005.

“When I asked the guys about their goals for the season, what I got back from them was that everybody wants to win the league and go deep in the playoffs,” Casey said. “If we get anything short of making the playoffs, I think it will be a disappointment.”

One obstacle the Greyhounds will face again this year is back-to-back league series against Portland Christian and Knappa, beginning on April 9.

“The way our league schedule is set up, we’ve got what’s traditionally been the top two teams in the league in back-to-back weeks,” Casey said. “There’s no resting our pitchers those weeks. We’ve obviously got to use our best guys, and they’ll have to throw five, six, seven innings to get a win, then turn around and throw again the next week.

“That will be tough, but if we want to outright win the league and get a bye into the playoffs, that’s what we’ll have to do.”

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