HARTVILLE It’s part math equation, part riddle.
How do you replace one of the best pitchers in the short history of your program?
The answer for Lake Center Christian baseball has been with two pitchers, each shouldering part of the burden for replacing the production of former LCC standout and current Malone starter James Kontur. Kontur both literally and figuratively had statue in the program, including eight wins and a sub-2.00 ERA as a senior.
In his place, the duo of Will Caudle and Zach Page have worked to anchor a rotation that has been effective and yielded both a shutout and a near no-hitter in recent weeks.
"Back in October, they (Caudle and Page) began their second year in a row at Grady's Pitching School working through their velocity training program," sixth-year LCC head coach Shane Byler said. "Due to their efforts, their arms are seasoned, and they've shown improvement every outing on the mound."
Their numbers don’t jump off the page in terms of wins and losses, but the duo have turned in workmanlike efforts all year long.
Caudle’s 5-3 record is contrasted with a 1.49 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 49 1/3 innings pitched, numbers that show he’s been effective and kept his team in games even if the offense has had its off days.
Page’s 2-5 mark with 45 1/3 innings pitched and a solid 3.70 ERA and 25 strikeouts has been hampered a bit by the 13 batters he’s hit, putting runners on base that may not have been able to hit him if his stuff was good that day. A recent game against Southeast illustrated that point, as Page went six innings without allowing a hit before C.J. Bancroft pitched the seventh inning, allowing a hit and a run, to close out the game.
It was the sort of effort that carried the day on an afternoon when the LCC offense managed just five hits and the Tigers scratched out three runs for a 3-1 win, with Caudle singling twice and scoring one of those runs to power the offense on a day he wasn’t towing the rubber.
Seeing Page and Caudle step in and take on a much larger role has been a positive for Byler and his staff.
It's been through a combination of contributing factors: their work ethic in the offseasons, their focus in summer baseball, our coaching staff, their teammates, Zach and Will's supporting system of parents and former coaches and a strong desire from each guy to be the best he can be," Byler said. "They have taken on the challenge of filling the shoes of former pitchers James Kontur and David Underation Early on, I was quoted as saying I have no doubts that Will and Zach would have what it takes to lead us on the mound this season. That is now a reality and we, as a coaching staff, couldn't be happier with how they've progressed as the leading hurlers in our program."
Page and Caudle have shown confidence in both their repertoires on the mound and their team, according to Byler, and the veteran coach has seen one good start lead to another for his new pitching tandem. That’s been true both individually, and Byler believes, between the two pitches as they’ve seen each other succeed and both out of friendly competition and a desire to lead the team to wins, they’ve swapped outstanding successive starts on the mound.
Part of their success also runs through senior catcher Alec Washington, getting his first chance to start this season and trying to make the most of it. Byler called him "one of the most fundamental receivers of the baseball that we've had" and added that Washington’s extended time as a backup and efforts to improve and earn a starting spot while working with catching coach Eric Hochstetler are paying off.
"This is his first year behind the plate as our starting catcher and he takes great pride in it," Byler said. "Alec played for Zach's dad, Jon Page, in youth baseball and grew up playing on the same team together. They've developed great chemistry together and it really takes a lot of pressure of off both of them and allows them to simply ‘play catch’ as they have for so many years."
The defense around Washington has functioned better as the season has worn on and with several assistant coaches able to work with different areas of the team, the Tigers have a chance to get important instruction on a more personal level.
Although a 7-12 overall record underscores the ups and downs the team has had all year long, the idea of closing out the year playing good baseball remains central.
"The idea of finishing strong has certainly come up in a few team meetings, but it's not something we've harped on," Byler said. "Our guys have developed habits of hard work and playing the game the right way. Everyone in our program takes pride in getting better everyday, playing their part in pushing our program forward and working to become difference makers in the program."
A schedule that doesn’t include a single Division IV team - the division in which LCC resides - prior to the tournament has made for a harder road and 10 state-ranked opponents have made it more difficult still. The final weeks of the season, whatever the end result, are simply opportunities to improve and put the finishing touches on a season that's been full of positive experiences," Byler added.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB