The Coconino Panthers head into the season with some southpaws on the roster they hope will help keep opponents on their toes.
Despite having some questions about the pitching situation this season, Panthers manager Daniel Vander Valk knows he wants to use his four left-handers on the mound as well as at the plate in order to mix things up and give his team an edge.
Bryce Wright, Chance Pierce, Zac Lopez and Jordan Lucero give Vander Valk options for the mound in a year when he might have to use a lot of different arms in relief. All four also bat lefty, so Vander Valk has some plans for them in the lineup as well.
Vander Valk will rely on his lefties, along with strong, solid defensive efforts and an aggressive approach to the game, to achieve the goal of winning the Grand Canyon Region title this year after ending up in a three-way tie at the top with Mingus Union and Flagstaff last season with an 8-4 mark.
He'll also rely on Jake Plecas, last year's slugger who had the team's highest batting average and led in RBIs, hits and runs scored on the way to becoming the 4A Conference Grand Canyon Region Offensive Player of the Year.
Plecas batted .438 in his junior year to go with 39 hits, 35 RBIs and 31 runs scored on 108 plate appearances. He also ended up in ties last season for the most doubles and home runs on the team, helping lead the Panthers into the second round of the 4A Conference state tournament.
Of the four lefties Vander Valk has to work into the order and onto the mound, however, only Wright and Pierce have varsity experience. Coconino's 10 returners, six of which are seniors, will be asked to make sure they provide run support in addition to mistake-free defense.
"We’ve explained to our guys where we are at, we put it out in the forefront,” Vander Valk said.
Vander Valk added that despite not having an ace standing out on the mound right now, there are plenty of different arms and styles of pitching to work with to get the team through games.
"We talked about mixing up our innings and not asking too much from one guy,” Vander Valk said.
On the mound for the Panthers this season, Luke Nelson and Plecas will provide the high-velocity pitches, and Kyle Casados can throw with some power to go with a trusty changeup. Vander Valk thinks he can then keep teams guessing by making them go up against lefties.
Nelson, Casados and Plecas spent some time throwing last season but did not have a significant amount of innings while working behind Christian Casados, Jake Reed and Matt Westling, who all graduated.
Vander Valk knows he'll be challenged this year to figure out how to utilize his pitching staff.
“It’s a little worrisome, it’s not something we get a lot of experience with and it’s a tough job for the skipper," Vander Valk said. "And at the varsity level, you have your substitution rules, so as you go into a game you have to have a plan for that before the game.”
The team returns to the diamond seasoned in many areas of the game, including the mental side, after going 10-8 through a 2017 regular season that had high peaks and low valleys. Midway through last season, the team dropped five straight games, but rebounded to go on a three-game win streak and secure a spot in the playoffs.
The Panthers expect to keep the speed on the basepaths going this season after finishing 2017 with the most stolen bases in the conference at 94, led by 19 from Ginsberg, 18 from Plecas and 11 from Nelson.
The Panthers will start on their goal of winning the region on Thursday when they take on the Bradshaw Mountain Bears in Prescott Valley to open the season, which was set back due to the recent snowstorms.
"We have guys who have experience and we need to trust those guys," Vander Valk said.