Despite returning a majority of his starters, challenges still remain for Brian Hucks as he prepares for his second season as head coach at Lexington High School. Hucks has to replace four key players from last year's Wildcats’ squad that posted a 27-4 record, won region and district titles and finished second in the AAAA lower state playoffs.
Gone are left fielder Austin Bello and his team-leading .448 batting average, first baseman Collin Steagall who hit .415 with a team-leading 32 RBI, third baseman Colie Bowers who hit .393 with three homers and 16 RBI and pitcher A.J. Hart who went 7-0 with a 0.80 ERA over 14 appearances.
“That was a special group of seniors last year that bought into a new coaching staff and the change of culture that we tried to instill,” said Hucks. “It will be a challenge to replace them, but we look forward to the opportunities ahead of us.”
The good news for Hucks, he has 10 seniors, six starters and returns four of his top six pitchers. His seniors include catcher Nick Ciuffo, second baseman Dalton Addy, shortstop Cody Smith and two of the state's top left-handed pitchers in Josh Reagan and Cole McMillan.
“This year’s group is one of the closest I have been around,” Hucks added. “They have worked extremely hard and are excited about their opportunity to wear the Wildcat uniform and represent their school and community."
Ciuffo, an Under Armour, Perfect Game and Louisville Slugger All-American, led the Wildcats hitting .520 at home and .538 in Region V games. Smith tied for the team lead with three homers and was named the MVP of the prestigious International Paper Classic. Addy is the team's top returning hitter after posting a .375 average last spring. Senior David Barboza will step in at first base while junior Reece Burnett is slated to start at third base. Juniors Jordan Buster and Marshall Pratte add infield depth.
Junior Ryan Brown, who anchors center field and is one of the state's top defenders, had a pair of homers and 10 RBI in just 46 at bats. Senior Zack Paquette moves to left field and McMillan will play right field when not on the hill. Senior transfer Brandon Camp and junior Cameron Matthews add outfield depth and could see time as the designated hitter.
Reagan is a preseason Louisville Slugger All-American and posted a 7-0 record last spring with a 1.02 ERA. He surrendered only nine earned runs in 62 innings and also posted a 5-0 mark and 0.78 ERA in six league starts. McMillan was 6-1 with a 2.24 ERA and limited opponents to just a .177 batting average allowing only 22 hits over 34.1 innings. Senior Elliott Lance (0-1, 1.45 ERA, four saves) and Burnett (1-0, 3.97) are competing for the third starters spot. Senior transfer Matt Godleski adds quality depth in middle relief or as the fourth starter. A pair of juniors should solidify the staff. Jordan Buster is the staff's hardest thrower and should make an impact while Dillon Headden is a submarine style hurler out of the pen.
Lexington has a challenging 27-game schedule that includes 10 region contests against Aiken, North Augusta, South Aiken, White Knoll and new member Dutch Fork. The Wildcats defend their IP Classic title March 7-10 in Georgetown and also participate in the National High School Invitational at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C. March 27-30. The Wildcats open regular season play when they host rival Irmo on Monday, March 4 at 7:00.
“This will be one of the most challenging schedules I have put together, but I believe that is how you prepare your teams for the playoffs,” added Hucks, who enters his 14th season as a high school head coach with a 286-109 record. “Our region is the toughest in South Carolina as proof by three teams advancing to the lower state championship bracket last year.
“We’re playing perennial powers Dorman and A.C. Flora in non-conference games, as well as, taking on three possible top five teams in Mauldin, Conway and Wando in the I.P. Classic.”
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.