Highlands baseball putting in work, desires deeper playoff run
Wednesday, March 11, 2020 | 6:01 PM
Highlands wasn’t halfway through its Sunday baseball practice, and sophomore Tanner Nulph already was talking to teammates about staying late.
Sure enough, when practice ended, coach Jeff Campbell still had a bat in his hands and continued to hit ground balls to the left side of the infield. Nulph and four other players rotated at third base and shortstop for the next 30 minutes, and another four worked on pitching and catching technique.
“That’s just the way it is,” Campbell said. “I was ready (to leave), but they always want more.”
Anticipation is building around the Golden Rams’ baseball team and what it could do to improve on last season’s two-game playoff run.
“There’s no doubt a lot of excitement with this group,” Campbell said. “There’s a confidence level that hasn’t been there in a while. My concern is I don’t want them to get overconfident. That’s tough. That’s one of the toughest jobs as a coach.”
Campbell will count on seniors like catcher Matt Cekada to keep the team’s young core of pitchers grounded.
Players tend to look up to Cekada, Campbell said, because he goes all-out in every drill.
“I definitely feel like this could be our year,” Cekada said. “We want to come out winning, keep our energy up and we want to win the section. I’m looking forward to competing against those teams and doing our best against them.”
Cekada called the team’s pitching its greatest strength.
Sophomore Jett Slepak will be the Golden Rams’ ace.
“We’ve had pitchers who were throwers in that they threw hard to try to blow it past you,” Campbell said. “Jett has very good velocity, but he’s smart. He knows when to use off-speed. He knows where to hit spots. He is mature for his age as far as a pitcher goes.”
Sophomore Ethan Hewitt, freshman Jimmy Kunst and Nulph round out Highlands’ core of underclassmen pitchers. Senior Chase Godfrey and junior Trent Bielak also will pitch.
“Honestly, it’s like we have a full pitching rotation,” Cekada said. “Everyone’s competitive.”
If the Golden Rams take the next step to be contenders, Campbell said they have to improve at the plate where Zac Kuniak and Noah Gilette, who graduated, were the only players last season to record more than four extra-base hits.
Three returning starters, Nulph, Cekada and Bielak, hit better than .300 last season.
Juniors DJ Loveland and Luke Beer will be two of the three starters in the outfield and will be counted on to improve the plate. Senior Johnny Crise could be the third outfielder, but he may forego the season to prepare for football at Penn State.
Slepak also will be a key contributor in the lineup with other players competing to start.
“For two years we’ve been preaching to believe in yourself, your teammates and your coaches, and I think that’s been key to where our program is now,” Campbell said. “I think we have a really good group here.”
More Baseball• Decade’s best WPIAL finals: Baseball No. 4
• Senior Spotlight: After lights-out junior year, South Park pitcher Brenden Gray excited to head to Seton Hill
• Trib HSSN May Madness: Neil Walker, Pine-Richland vs. T.J. McConnell, Chartiers Valley
• Decade’s best WPIAL finals: Baseball No. 5
• Senior Spotlight: After two runner-up finishes, Union’s Nate Meeks was thinking championship