Panthers turn to veterans

Bryan Veginski

The Washington baseball team will count on new players to carry it through the 2008 season.

After going 31-12 and finishing third in the Illinois High School Association Class AA state final last year, the Panthers are turning to their experienced players for leadership.

Seniors Mike Schwenk and Austin Fisher will be valuable as Washington attempts to fill holes all over the diamond.

“We want them to really step up as leaders and take over,” said second-year WCHS baseball head coach Kevin Brown of Schwenk and Fisher.

Schwenk will play second base and some shortstop, while Fisher will be one of the top pitchers and handle third base.

Schwenk drove in 18 runs a year ago while batting .286. Fisher collected 10 RBI and went 2-2 one the mound with a 2.95 earned-run average.

Joining them in the infield are junior shortstop candidates Ben Worner and David Dalfonso and second baseman Josh Hofer, also a junior.

Senior Dan O’Neill and sophomore Marshall Escue are Panther options at first base.

First-team all-Mid-Illini Conference selection Alex Wilson, now a junior, is back to patrol center field.

Wilson hit .333 with four home runs and 27 RBI from the middle of the order as a sophomore.

Others eyeing starting outfield assignments after graduation opened up two spots are: Dustin Grebner, Mike Zehr, Cody Maddock and Bobby Miller, all of whom are juniors.

“We’ve got a lot of new guys and they’re doing a good job right now,” said Brown about the outfield picture.

Seniors Hayden Shaver and Patrick Hipes are possibilities at designated hitter.

There will be a new regular backstop — junior catcher Robert Hodges.

Considerable turnover occurred in the pitching department as unanimous all-league pick Allen Sepich (12-2, 1.30 ERA, 108 strikeouts) and second-team honoree Steffan Brown (8-2, 3.21) departed.

Sepich, who also hit .342 with five homers and 33 RBI, and Brown both delivered postseason masterpieces.

Following Fisher, senior Brandon Goodin has a chance to help Washington form a solid one-two combination at the top of the rotation.

In 11 innings as a junior, Goodin struck out 11 with a 1.27 ERA.

While Brown acknowledged a lot of pitching was lost, he hopes the hurlers can develop similar to the way Sepich and Steffan Brown did in ’07.

Worner, Maddock, Grebner and Escue also could be counted upon on the mound.

Infielder/pitcher Ryan Harkins, a sophomore, is part of the varsity roster as well.

Todd Sluder, a three-year starter who worked his way up to first-team all-M-I honors at shortstop, is another notable loss.

In his senior campaign, Sluder batted .391 with 43 RBI to lead the team in both categories and also swatted five homers.

Many of the current athletes got a brief taste of varsity baseball. This year, they will be counted on more heavily.

The Panthers were the ’07 conference champions, making up two games on runner-up Limestone in the second round of league play.

Brown identified the Rockets, Canton and East Peoria as formidable M-I teams in ’08.

“The conference is going to be tough,” said Brown. “It’s competitive from top to bottom.”

Richwoods, Richmond-Burton and Troy Triad (in a May 3 showcase at Limestone) are among the new teams added to this season’s schedule.

Washington hopes by May to play under the lights for the first time at its home park.

Washington split a twin bill Saturday with visiting Granite City, losing the opener in eight innings, 4-1, and winning the second game, 6-5.

Brown said the team’s mentality with runners on base changed positively in the nightcap.

“They stepped up and wanted to be in that situation,” Brown said after the hitters were hesitant in game one.

Wilson doubled and knocked in two runs in the victory, while Fisher, Escue and Hodges also registered RBI. Escue and Hodges generated doubles as well.

Goodin got the win after fanning six and issuing only one walk. Worner notched the save working the seventh.

In the first contest, the teams were scoreless from the third through seventh innings until the Warriors broke out for three runs in the eighth.

Worner took the loss after entering in the sixth inning in place of Fisher, who racked up six strikeouts and walked two.

Schwenk supplied three of the Panthers’ five hits off GC pitching.