Witnesses for the Defense: S. Royalton Returns Plenty From Title Run
South Royalton catcher Alex Berk works with assistant coach John Scoskie on blocking wild pitches during a Friday night practice in South Royalton, Vt., on April 4, 2014. The team won the state championship last season. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
South Royalton baseball coach Mike Ballou talks with his team during a Friday night practice in South Royalton, Vt., on April 4, 2014. The team won the state championship last season. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
South Royalton shortstop David Ballou takes batting practice during a Friday night workout in the school gym in South Royalton, Vt., on April 4, 2014. The team won the state championship last season. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
South Royalton first baseman Leif Johnson runs through fielding drills with the team during a Friday night practice in the school gym in South Royalton, Vt., on April 4, 2014. The team won the state championship last season. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »
South Royalton — All championship teams must turn the proverbial page at the outset of the following season. Fortunately for the South Royalton High baseball team, the next chapter likely won’t include many plot twists.
Six of nine starters and five core seniors return from last year’s Vermont Division IV state champions , who enjoyed one of the most dominant seasons in team history. South Royalton went 17-1, losing only to eventual D-III champ Randolph, going undefeated in D-IV play while outscoring opponents 174-36.
The Royals were toughest when it counted most in the playoffs, pitching two straight shutouts in the quarterfinals and semis before downing two-time defending champion Danville in the championship game at the University of Vermont’s Centennial Field.
The elation hasn’t yet fully dissolved for the Royals, who — like everyone else in the area — are still practicing inside while gearing up to defend their title.
“Yeah, we still talk about it every day, every time I see the players,” said South Royalton coach Mike Ballou, who won states in the first year of his second stint with the team. “It was a very exciting run, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with still talking about it. But right now, we have to do everything in our power to turn the page. Last year isn’t going to help us this year.”
Perhaps not, but at least many of the same players will be available. Pitcher Nate Moore returns after excelling both on the mound (8-0; 29 hits, 17 walks, 73 strikeouts) and at the plate (.370; 13 RBIs). Fellow senior and shortstop David Ballou is the squad’s top returning hitter, cranking out a .431 average a year ago with 27 RBIs. Senior Hunter Brock (.414; eight doubles, 20 RBIs) also hit north of .400, while senior catcher Alex Berk (.314) and juniors Sam Berk (.333), Darrin Kennedy (.333) and Keanan Thompson (.308) round out the Royals’ bounty of top bats.
“We’re fortunate to have a lot of guys who work hard and are versatile guys that can play in a lot of different places as well as hit the ball” said Mike Ballou, a former University of Maine pitcher. “They’ve got a lot of chemistry because they’ve been through a lot together. We’ve got five seniors and three juniors, and most of them have been playing together since Little League.”
South Royalton does have a few starting spots to replace, including two infield positions. Graduated third baseman Thomas Ingham batted .422 with 16 RBIs while going 4-1 on the mound as a reliable backup pitcher. Troy Tracy (.271) was equally adept at second base for a Royals team that committed only four errors all season.
The Royals also have tough shoes to fill in left field, where balls hit anywhere near Darren Cilley (.264; eight RBIs) were surefire outs. Cilley was also a deft hitter and base runner, a trait on display in the title game when he led off the first inning with double and advanced on a pair of fly balls to put South Royalton ahead early.
“The guys that did leave are going to be tough to replace, as much because of their effort and the way they played the game as their abilities,” Mike Ballou said. “But we’re excited about the guys we have coming up. Our freshman class this year reminds me a lot of our senior class in terms of the chemistry that they already have. They grew up playing together at the youth level, and they push each other and feed off of one another.”
They’ve also been pushing the team’s veterans while jockeying for the open spots, something David Ballou feels is helping the team focus.
“We know we can’t rest on our laurels from last year, and right now they’re making sure that we don’t,” the shortstop said. “I’m impressed because they have a lot of talent, especially for their age, but they also have a lot of enthusiasm that’s helping us. They all know that there’s a couple spots open, and they’re going for it.”
South Royalton two years ago purchased a double-barrelled batting cage, allowing for hitting drills during the offseason. It became available beginning in January for Sunday afternoon sessions, which were well-attended.
“We can have two people going at the same time, so it really gives us a head start,” said David Ballou. “It wasn’t mandatory for guys to be here, but a lot of people took advantage.”
Senior Leif Johnson, who was 2-0 last year, will move into the No. 2 pitcher’s role, while junior Darrin Kennedy will be No. 3 in the rotation. The Royals’ continued success will rest largely on the arm of Moore, who’s been working this offseason on accuracy and control.
“He’s still working on his curve ball and painting the corners,” Mike Ballou said. “He likes to blow (fastballs) by people with power, but he’s starting to figure out that sometimes it’s better to dial it back by a couple of miles per hour and work on the corners.”
The Royals were moved to D-III this season — hello, two games with defending champ Randolph — and added to the schedule a pair of games against Montpelier, who went just 2-14 last year in that division. South Royalton also has a pair of D-III games each against Thetford, Williamstown and Rivendell on its Central Vermont League docket, and Mike Ballou isn’t concerned with the prospect of increased competition in the playoffs.
“As long as we keep working to get better, we’ll be ready,” the coach said.
South Royalton’s scheduled April 12 season opener against Rochester has been postponed. The Royals are now scheduled to open the season April 17 at home against Montpelier, weather permitting.
Jared Pendak can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3306.