By Tony Ciuffo
While the names on the lockers and the faces in the team photo change annually for Lexington head baseball coach Brian Hucks, expectations and goals don’t. The 2014 version of the Wildcats is considered a talented but inexperienced group that’s looking forward to another year, another challenge.
Lexington finished 2013 with a 28-5 record, claimed the AAAA state title and earned top 10 final national rankings in every major poll. Replacing 11 seniors who’ve moved on to play collegiately or professionally won’t be easy, but Hucks and players expect to compete for region and state titles every year.
“The expectation at Lexington is that we compete for championships every year,” said Hucks, who is 313-114 overall in his 15th season and 55-9 in two seasons at Lexington. “We return 10 players from the state championship team and they’re hungry to blaze their own trail. They’re a talented group that is excited to represent their school, community and alumni.“
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Gone from last year’s staff is All-American and South Carolina freshman Josh Reagan, and Wofford newcomer Elliot Lance. Reagan posted an 11-0 record, including both wins in the best-of-three state championship series, and a 1.13 ERA. Lance, who began the season as the closer and went 4-1 with four saves and a 1.06 ERA, became the club’s No. 2 starter during the post-season. The duo combined to pitch 114.1 of the team’s 224 innings overall, and make eight out of nine post-season starts.
The 2014 staff will be anchored by senior righty Jordan Buster and freshman lefty Chase Williamson. Buster, who committed to The Citadel, posted a 5-1 record with a sparkling 1.05 ERA last spring. He struck out 29 over 26.2 innings and limited the opposition to just a .194 batting average. Williamson gained valuable experience making five appearances including two starting assignments as an 8th grader. Williamson has a mid-80s fastball and is receiving attention from some of the top Division I programs around.
There are several players that will compete for the third starter. Junior Cordes Baker dropped his arm slot and is having a really good fall. Junior right-handers Michael Smoak and Trey Watts improved this fall after seeing limited time last spring when they combined to average over a strikeout per inning. Senior side-armer Dillon Headden is a team leader who should see action as a specialist. Ryan Brown, the team’s starting center fielder, may see action on the mound. Junior transfer Braxton Ashley is a strong righty who could factor in to the bullpen. Junior Ryan Cain has had a good fall and provides depth.
The lineup is built around Brown, an All-American candidate. Brown hit .463 last spring and is one of the best center fielders and leadoff hitters in the nation. As the table setter, he sported a .524 on base percentage, scored 41 runs and finished 17-18 in stolen bases. Buster will be the second baseman and sophomore Bubba Bowers will play shortstop. Both are exceptional defenders and will anchor the infield. There’s competition for the first and third base spots. Senior Marshall Pratte can play both corner positions and is starting get some attention from college coaches. William Hunter, a three-sport standout including a four-year starter at quarterback on the football team, can play both positions and will hit in the middle of the lineup.
Juniors Jared Bostic and Austin Leaphart are competing for time at first base, while freshman Josh Asbill is excellent defensively and will see action at second base.
Several players are competing for assignments in left and right field. Watts, along with senior Cameron Matthews and sophomore Brice Kirven, could be the leading candidates. Smoak and Baker are excellent defensive outfielders and could also play significant innings, while junior Braxton Ashley is primarily a catcher but could see time in the outfield.
Senior catcher Will Lacount, a USC Lancaster commitment, is very talented and would have started for most schools had he not played behind Tampa Bay Rays’ first round selection Nick Ciuffo the past two seasons. He’ll be backed up by Ashley and junior Hunter Croft.
Lexington has a challenging 24-game schedule that includes 10 region contests against Aiken, North Augusta, South Aiken, White Knoll and Dutch Fork. The Wildcats participate in two tournaments, the Red Bank Invitational (RBI) and the Forest Acres Classic. Lexington enters the season having won 24 straight home games and 20 consecutive region contests.
“We’ve lined up another extremely challenging schedule along with playing in one of the most competitive regions in the state,” added Hucks. “We play defending AAA state champion A.C. Flora and perennial AAAA power Dorman in a pair of home-and-home series as part of our non-conference schedule. We’ll also play two very good teams in T.C. Roberson out of Asheville, N.C. and Northeast High School from Florida.
Hucks served as head coach at Brookland-Cayce for 12 seasons before taking over the Wildcats' post in 2012. He led the Bearcats to nine district titles and state championships in 2000 and 2008.