Spring has sprung. The bats are ringing, the cleats are digging, and the grounders are rolling. With the beginning of the season in action, the only thing higher than the pop-flys are ninth year coach, Kent Drake’s expectations.
With the roster completely filled out, Fairmont is headlined by a whopping thirteen seniors heading into this season, the most ever during coach Drake’s tenure. Among the mass amount of seniors, seven are already committed to colleges for baseball.
Khonner Rose and Drew Duckro are going to be attending Bluffton University, Deaunte’ Fleming to Heidelberg University, Chaney Morgan to Sinclair Community College, Trevor Cukovecki to Lincoln Trail Community College, Tommy Bell to Old Dominion University, and Colton Hicks to Clark State Community College.
Where commitments are made, as always, attention follows. Playing college ball is something that is highly praised in high school sports, for the athlete has been scouted and pursued by a university for their talent and character.
For a committed athlete’s team, there’s generally a sense of pride, but Coach Drake views it as a distraction.
“Motivation and focus is going to be a struggle, and it always is with people who have early signings,” Drake said.
Despite the fact that he thinks there’s distractions with a gigantic senior class such as graduation, college acceptance, and the transition into adulthood, Drake does have a tremendous set of expectations for the upperclassmen lead Firebirds who are coming off a 19-10 season and a share of their conference title.
“My expectations are that we win the conference, advance to the district finals and farther, but if those aren’t the same goals as the kids have, it doesn’t matter,” Drake said. “Last year, we had one early signing and we had a highly successful season, because those kids cared about the program, and if these guys can match that, we should be better than we were. If they can’t, we won’t.”
Drake’s expectations are justified. Fairmont is bringing back a group that lead the GWOC in fielding efficiency and close to top five in nearly every hitting category. That was a different team of course, losing six valuable pieces. Yet experience is a strength, because of the wholesome senior class of this year.
Also categorized as strengths by coach is the team’s exceptional midfielders, and depth. How many players that can give the Birds good innings is something immensely emphasized coming into this spring, in fact they are going to have difficulties getting all the guys the innings they’ve earned.
“That’s something we haven’t had in the past, a whole lot of depth. It’s a humongous strength for this team, it’s going to be tough getting guys playing time who deserve it,” Drake said.
When there are strengths, there are also weaknesses, and the 2017 Fairmont baseball team doesn’t have many of them.
The asset of experience isn’t guaranteed to come with commitment and leadership which will be the two pieces to find to complete the puzzle. Finding a leader is much more difficult with a graduating class, especially when they’ve never assumed a position of leadership.
“Who’s going to step up? That’s a big question,” Drake said. “What will hold this team back isn’t skills, but it’s chemistry, commitment, and the desire to make this a special year.”
Senior Pitcher, Drew Duckro is very aware of the bar that was set last year, and what has to be done to reach it this year.
“I want to win districts this year,” Duckro said. “He expected us to win districts last year, but we didn’t though we should’ve.”
One of the biggest pieces of the team, and the main returning starter has his eyes set on districts for the team but also has his eyes on an individual record set by none other than one of his coaches.
“I want to break Coach [Tyler] Kilburns’ record. He has 15 wins in his career, and I have 10, so I’d like to beat that,” said Duckro who got six of those last year in his best season so far.
Along with 54 K’s and a 2.17 ERA, Duckro put together a fantastic season on the mound and has a fluent understanding on how the coaches affect the performance of the young student-athletes. “People see our coaches and think they’re mean and jerks, but that’s only in practices to improve us. During the games, it’s really fun, and the coaches loosen up,” Duckro said.
Although Fairmont’s coaches are sometimes stern, they’re tough loving and push the players for the better, exemplified by promising junior, Kenny Sherrick, when he was asked to describe his head coach in one word.
“I’d probably say intense, because he really cares that we do our best, so we can perform our best,” Sherrick says.
The utility man, more of a prospect last year, pitched in 4.1 innings and had two at-bats, one of them resulting in a hit, and eventually a run. Sherrick expects to get a lot more playing time after just merely tasting varsity play his sophomore season, but isn’t ignorant to the 13 seniors or his other teammates giving their all to slip into the lineup, and the bullpen.
“I don’t feel intimidated, but it’s hard to get in there when there’s so many guys trying so hard just to play,” Sherrick said. “I’m hoping to get a starting spot in the outfield, and get some infield time when some of the other guys are pitching.”
With the depth, and fundamental skill of Fairmont varsity baseball, Sherrick acknowledges the team doesn’t have a leader and is still remarkably confident. “I don’t think it’ll hurt that much, because we can all come together as one team,” Sherrick said.
Sherrick has already wowed in his first start ever, pitching a seven strikeout, complete game, shutout.
Confidence seems to be a theme radiating from the entire group. Commitment and leadership are essential but isn’t stopping head coach, Kent Drake from aiming for history.
“That’s my goal, is to have the most wins of any team that we’ve had, and this team has the physical skills to do that, but will they bring the side pieces that are paramount in importance to accomplish it,” Drake said.
All in all, the 2017 Firebirds varsity baseball team’s hype train is rolling. Their first games were March 25, going one and one, with seniors Deaunte’ Fleming and Chaney Morgan gathering four hits each, Fleming totaled three RBI’s, and Morgan knocked one out in the Saturday double header.
On March 27, Fairmont played their first home game and won 10-4, with Shortstop, Tommy Bell hitting four for four. Then on March 29, the Firebirds surged past Carroll behind Kenny Sherrick’s shutout and Deaunte’ Fleming’s home run.
All in all, Coach Drake is eager to put all the work into action, and he’s very optimistic.
“I think it’s an exciting team, and they’ve got the potential to make a run deep in the tournament,” Drake said. “I think they have a chance to be the best team in GWOC, and in their division, whatever the heck it’s called now.”