Clay is smeared on their faces, in their hair, on their white pants. They sit around a table at Johnny’s Tavern wearing sweat-stained jerseys and not caring about the smell that lingers. The East boys’ baseball team doesn’t mind spending another hour and a half together after three hours on the field.
Burgers scattered all over the table, passing around double dipped fries and pitchers of Dr. Pepper. Shouting nicknames, talking baseball, arguing over who took whose sunflower seeds at practice. They’re comfortable with each other. Unlike last year, they are comfortable on and off the field.
From smacking balls into the drop-down nets in the stage gym on cold winter days to watching baseball games at each others houses, they are spending more time off the field and creating better relationships as a team. Starting this past summer and during the off-season they’ve all worked together. Having this time together is something that senior Gunnar Troutwine thinks will take them far. Already, the team has started off 5-1 only losing to Olathe South, the second ranked team in the state that has a pitcher who throws 90 mph.
With 10 returning seniors who strive to be leaders, the team this year has a different dynamic than it has in the past according to coach Jerrod Rhyerd. The seniors stepped up during winter conditioning, leading the underclassmen in exercises and drills, hoping to get them prepared for what it’s like to play at East with the hope of making it to State.
“As far as any senior group I’ve had, this group really wants to get better,” Rhyerd said. “They want to practice; they’re not just looking to get out of there and get home, they want to have a meaningful practice.”
The players don’t mind if it’s a lengthy practice. Kids are constantly asking for extra help from Rhyerd and the other coaches, which he says has led to some success early on in the season.
Alongside the 10 returning seniors, the team is also filled with juniors: Max Sanborn, Charlie White and Karl Harding, as well as sophomore Joey Wentz, who all have varsity experience.
Troutwine says this year’s offense is stacked with a good line-up. So far the one through nine hitters have performed well, the team is batting .313 percent with 32 runs batted in (RBIs) in 166 at bats.
The East offensive lineup goes a bit like this; the first batter, Harding, is a guy that can get on base and run the bases well — he stole two bases in their first game against SM South. Second batter is where Troutwine sits in at, usually a fast player that also gets on base and advances the runners. Troutwine hit a home run during his first at bat of the season. Three and four are the “big hitters.” That’s where Wentz comes in at number three having three doubles this season . Senior Trey Austin brings up the wheel in four hole, so far having seven RBIs and a home run against Gardner Edgerton.
In addition to their strong offense, players agree that the pitching staff is equally effective. With Wentz on the mound the Lancers feature a solid defense. Against Gardner Edgerton, Wentz pitched six innings while only giving up one hit and zero runs. As of Tuesday, April 8, Wentz is 3-0*. So far this season, the team has 10 runs allowed (RA), which is the lowest average RA in the sunflower league. Troutwine believes this is because of the strong pitching rotation.
“Each game our pitchers go out and throw strikes which wins games,” Troutwine said. “Besides our pitchers, everyone else in the field is strong.”
The pitching rotation is backed up by three senior outfielders and two more in the infield.
Whether it’s running down pop flys or diving after balls, senior Jay Anderson says the outfield is effective by helping out the pitchers. Seeing as they’ve played with each other for four years, senior Grant Herbal, Anderson and Tyler are all quick and have good communication in the outfield.
“We’re all talented and our team chemistry is really great which is definitely an advantage,” Austin said. “State is definitely in our sights.”
The last time they competed in the State tournament was in 2011 but the team has only won the State title twice in 1984 and 1995. Troutwine suited up as a freshman for the 2011 game where they ended up taking third place. In the past three years, they’ve made it through the first game of regionals but it’s been that last regionals game they’ve kept losing.
“Going to State is always our goal and it’s something we’ve thrown around a lot more this year,” Rhyerd said. “It’s something the guys really want to get and they’ve been working hard for it. We know we have the talent on our team to beat anyone in the state, but it’s not going to be easy. We’re off to a good start but we’re going to have to get a lot better if we are wanting to compete at that state championship.”
With the hype surrounding baseball and their drive for that championship, the team hopes to fill the usually empty stands. They’re not used to having bleachers packed with people. They know that baseball isn’t a “popular” sport at East, but this year they are wanting to change peoples opinions. The guys wish to have some fans follow them this season as they take on their hopes for State.
“We’re going to be really good, we’ve shown it so far we have a really exciting team to watch we have exciting games,” senior Quinn Appletoft said. “It really means a lot to us to have people out there who care how were doing and want to see our games, people showing interest really kind of drives us and having people at the games is just awesome it’s great to look up and not just see empty stands with a few parents.”
The boys know that they have a lot of work to do as they progress on their journey to State, but that pressure isn’t going to change their dynamic as a team. If anything, Appletoft says, the team will only be getting closer. They’ll still be spending late nights together, whether it’s in the ballpark or around the table at Johnny’s.