After productive offseason, Hampton baseball eager to get started

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Saturday, March 9, 2024 | 11:01 AM


Hampton baseball coach Kellen Wheeler had a numbers problem this offseason.

But it was a good one.

The sixth-year coach had to figure out how to accommodate an overflow group of players in the school’s auxiliary gym and weight room for the team’s four-times-a-week workouts.

“I had anywhere from 24 to 31 kids showing up,” Wheeler said. “The kids worked their butts off.”

Since November, the Talbots spent two days a week lifting and two days a week in the batting cages, drawing an unprecedented number of participants in preparation for the 2024 season.

Wheeler said by comparison, he usually gets about 14 players to offseason workouts, and the numbers were even lower in his first season as coach.

“Five years ago, I was sometimes getting only eight, nine kids,” he said. “I only had to set up one cage.”

A combination of specialized athletes — Wheeler said he has no wrestlers, basketball players or swimmers on the varsity roster — and a determination to improve from last season prompted the packed offseason workouts.

“It shows that our team is really dedicated to the season and we want to do well this year and prove everything wrong that happened at the end of last year,” said senior third baseman/catcher Brady Long, who was among the team leaders with 13 RBIs last season. “We are so motivated.”

The Talbots, who went 9-10 last season and earned the program’s first WPIAL playoff victory since 2018, attracted 32 players to the first tryouts. Sixteen of them are sophomores.

“We have a lot of young talent that wants to prove they can play on this team,” said all-section junior catcher Justin Dubee, who hit .370 last season. “I think being in the weight room helped a lot of us gain strength and mobility.”

The Talbots, who open the season March 18 at Fox Chapel, will tune up for Section 4-4A action by attending the Cal Ripken Experience from March 25-30 in Myrtle Beach, S.C. They are scheduled to play three games.

Joining Dubee and Long as returning starters are three seniors — pitcher Caleb Custer (2-2, 3.35 ERA) and pitcher/OFs Matt Erka (.295, 13 RBIs, 11 runs) and Sean Sullivan (11 RBIs) — and junior third baseman/DH Brady Smith.

“I think we’re improving a lot,” Erka said. “Every day we come out and we’re getting stronger. I think it’s helped hitting especially. Whenever we first started, it wasn’t as good, but you have definitely seen some development in some of the guys and I think we’ve definitely improved since the start.”

The talented sophomore class will be counted on as the Talbots look to replace ace pitcher Ryan Apaliski, a James Madison recruit, and all-section middle infielders Eric Weeks and Anthony Bucci.

Custer will anchor the pitching staff, along with Erka, senior Parker Brockway and sophomores Zach Virbitsky, Ethan Phillips and Jake Adamczyk, the roster’s lone left-hander.

Junior Dylan Eichas is the projected starter at shortstop, while second base was up for grabs entering the first week of tryouts.

Others who will try to help the Talbots reach the WPIAL playoffs for the seventh consecutive season are senior OF Norby Hock, senior infielder Gustavo Arias, junior OF Alex Kuzniewski and a trio of sophomores — corner infielder Ryan Scully, middle infielder Drew Bucci and speedy OF James Derence.

“With the sophomore class being so big, we have a lot of unknowns at the varsity level,” Wheeler said. “I’m hoping they come out and step up this year. If they step up, I think we are going to have a great year.”

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