Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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March 12, 2013

This year's Princeton Tigers: A different animal

PRINCETON — The pride of being the first state baseball championship team ever at Princeton Senior High School will not fade, but the 2013 squad knows that this week they are embarking on an entirely new year.

Nine seniors from last spring’s 26-8 squad have graduated, coach Josh Wilburn observed. Still, he likes the talent that is practicing for a new campaign.

“I think the most important thing is, that we realize that the state championship was last year, and that there’s still some really talented teams in West Virginia this year,” Wilburn said on Monday.

“Bouncing off of that state championship, the kids were very excited coming into this season. The biggest thing is getting them to understand that there’s a lot of work that they have to do to prepare for the next season.

“Even though we’re coming off a state championship year, there’s still a lot of preparation. Nothing’s going to be handed to us this year.”

“Definitely, the experience they got last year, and all the games that they won, even if they had a very small part in winning those games, they were still experiencing it.”

Building on that momentum, he said, “We started conditioning early this year. Starting in October, we were in the weight room, doing a lot of our conditioning and weight-lifting.”

“It’s hard to get the whole team back,” he said. “The bulk of our baseball players also play soccer, which I encourage because they’re in such good shape, coming out of soccer. There are a few that play basketball, and a few play football.”

“I try to encourage them to play fall sports here at Princeton, because I think, even though it takes away from baseball conditioning, I know they’re getting something productive in, for the school and the other teams.”

For the baseball squad, he has tried not to fall into the trap of looking back instead of looking forward.

“I told myself, coming off that championship year, that I would try not to compare this team to that team,” he said.

“That team, last year, was probably a once-in-a-coaching-career type of team. We graduated nine seniors — seven starting seniors. Five went on to play college baseball. That’s very rare, especially in this part of the state, to have a team like that.”

“One good thing that I truly believe, though, is that that team last year had such good leadership, that they really have bred this team that’s here right now, to win. Winning breeds winning, and the kids understand that.”

“They set a great foundation for this group. If I’m not mistaken, over the course of three years, that group won about 63 ballgames and only lost about 26 or 27 ballgames. So this group right here got to see a lot of winning — a recipe for what it would take to win.”

“Even though, coming in, they don’t have a whole lot of baseball games under their belt, it’s not going to take long to prime them to win baseball games.”

From a pitching standpoint, he said, “Post-season, we relied on a lot of our seniors to get it done, but during the regular season, those juniors got a lot of experience (which) will carry over to this year.”

“Bo Williams was a big part of winning a lot of baseball games in the regular season. Nick Janutolo, the only left-handed pitcher I’ve got on the varsity roster, played a really big role.”

Chris Otey and Brycen Allen, who both played “a huge role,” according to their coach, are back for their senior year. Otey has bounced back from arm problems, Wilburn said, and is expected to start at first base. Allen is in center field.

“We have a really good group of outfielders this year,” Wilburn said. Will Hickman and Billy Jack Varney will likely be counted on there. Varney, a mainstay of last spring’s JV team, may also spend some time at first base and on the mound.

Josh Perry will play his senior year at third base and catcher.

Juniors include Bryce Peek, outfielder-pitcher Bryce Peek; infielder-pitcher Andrew Wilson; infielder-catcher-pitcher Ryan Bell; and catcher-outfielder Perry Stafford.

Ian Southcott, a junior, started at shortstop on the JV team and practiced beside his brother Austin, a varsity standout.

Wilburn said about Ian, “He’s grown, and he’s gotten bigger. Austin’s shoes are big shoes to fill, at a position like that, but I think he’s going to do a great job.”

Addison Wood, who was a Tazewell High School sophomore last year, has transferred to go to school with his cousin Nick Wood at the Mercer County seat.

Wilburn said, “He enrolled at the beginning of the year. He started coming to baseball, conditioning and what-not. I foresee him as being a talent here at Princeton. He can catch, he can play the infield, and he can pitch. I think he’ll be a nice addition to this group of kids.”

“We’ve got a real talented group. We’ve even got a talented JV crew. (There’s) a good group of sophomores there that, if we need them, we’re very confident that they could step up and play.”

“We actually have a really good offensive lineup, just as much as our pitching staff and our defense — but it’s going to take us a few games to get settled in and see what’s going to be best for us.”

Though he repeated that he has tried not to compare this season’s roster with 2012, he said, “What I do compare is their work ethic.”

“Those seniors who graduated last year, I pretty much had to run them out of the (batting) cage, I had to run them off the mound, because they wanted to work so much. Really, that determination and that dedication to baseball is what it takes to be a state champion.”

“I don’t want them (this year’s squad) to make them feel inferior to last year’s team, but also just to show them that there’s a lot of preparation that goes in to create that success.”

“This team here is still real talented; I see them winning a lot of baseball games. We’ve just got to go out every day and prepare for our sectional tournament, and make sure that we’re staying healthy and that we’re playing our best baseball when it comes to the sectional.”

He would have liked more outdoor preparation time this month. The weather had other ideas.

“It’s been tough on us, but we’re getting there,” he said. “We get 14 practices (maximum) and then it’s play ball.”

Princeton plans a couple of scrimmage games this evening with Wyoming East, the start of a challenging week right off the bat.

On Wednesday, the regular season starts with a doubleheader series against PikeView at Hunnicutt Field starting at 5 p.m. On Friday, Mountain State Athletic Conference foe St. Albans visits Princeton for a 7 p.m. game.

On Saturday, the Tigers are scheduled to play at noon in Parkersburg. “Then, on the way back,” Wilbrun said, “we’ll stop and play at Ripley.”

“That’s a lot of baseball games in a week, but I truly believe that our pitching staff will be able to handle it.”

Knowing that the opposition will be out to beat the reigning state champions, Wilburn wants to dial down the pressure that could create.

“I told them, it’s easy for us to wear our championship rings and call ourselves state champions, but it’s a new year, a new season. If nothing else, a lot of people do look at it as, Princeton is the state champions, and if we can beat them, there are a lot of bragging rights there,” Wilburn said.

“But I try not to put a lot of pressure on them. I want them to go out and just play their game. And if we play Princeton baseball like I’ve tried to teach them, I think we’ll be very successful.”

— Contact Tom Bone at

tbone@bdtonline.com

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