After two weeks of practice, second-year Spanish Springs coach Ben Hofmann will finally get to evaluate his team in some game action, starting today as the SSHS squad kicks off its 2012 campaign with a 3:30 p.m. non-league game at Douglas as part of the annual Mike Bearman Memorial Tournament.
“I’m ready,” Hofmann said. “The weather has been as nice as it’s been in years ... We’ve had a ton of time outdoors. I’d imagine everyone else has too, but we had good attendance at our offseason workouts. The kids are ready to go.
“We want to see kids throw in live-game situations. We’ve done some scrimmages, but this is now live games. We want to see where everybody is. I think I have an idea who will be our guys, but there’s a few spots we’re still evaluating.”
This spring feels a little different to Hofmann. A year ago he was leading the Cougars’ program into a new season with the interim title next to his name. That’s no longer the case as Hofmann was given the job full-time following the SSHS nine’s run to just its second state tourney berth in its program’s 10 years of existence.
“It does feel a little bit different,” Hofmann said. “I had the summer and the school year to work on and plan some things. It’s not so last minute as there was more time to work things out. Last year, a lot of the planning stuff was already done by the time I took over. This year, we met several times as a coaching staff to plan and make sure we’re doing right by the kids.”
Hofmann singled out a trio of senior returners who must play well and be leaders for the Cougars to improve and reach their goals as the season progresses. Chase Kittilsen, Chad Little and Shane Lawson make up that group and all three played key roles on last year’s 26-11 regional title winner.
Kittilsen is a hard-throwing right-hander on the hill and can play either corner infield position. He is also expected to hit in the middle of the SSHS lineup. Little, another right-hander, was an all-league hurler last year, handling the Cougars’ long-relief chores. He is expected to be a starter this spring. Lawson was a starting outfielder and provided some pop at the bottom of the Cougars’ lineup.
In addition to Kittilsen and Little, Hofmann expects another righty, junior Nikk Audenreid, will be the team’s third starter. Audenreid was an all-league caliber linebacker before injuring his foot last fall. That forced him to sit out the recently finished wrestling season after he had qualified for state as a sophomore.
“He’s not quite 100 percent in terms of running and hitting, but pitching-wise, he’s OK,” Hofmann said. “He’s just chomping at the bit to go. He’s a kid with endless energy. Sitting out wrestling and the second half of football was probably as hard on him as anybody. He’s raring to go. We’ve been trying to hold him back and that’s like fighting a bull in the ring. He’s tough.
“He’s got all the physical and mental tools. He’s a strong competitor. It’s just a matter of getting him the reps. He pitched well for us last summer. He just needs to get healthy and the more reps he gets, the better.”
Hofmann put a list together of pitchers he expects to eat up innings in the coming season: right-handers Garrett Covington and Austin Damoth as well as left-handers Taylor McBroom, Anthony Piscareno and Junior Ruiz.
“We play five games in three days this weekend,” the Cougars’ skipper said. “I like our chances of seeing everybody pitch. I can’t imagine not seeing 10 or 11 guys throw. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out.”
While Cougar coaches seem to believe they know who can get outs on the mound, who can produce at the plate is a bigger question. Outside of Kittilsen and Lawson, much of Hofmann’s offensive expectations are up in the air. He cited junior infielders Vinny Agliolo and Matt Mannens and senior outfielder Troy Weller, as players he believes can fill offensive voids.
The long ball was a key component of the Cougars’ offensive success a year ago. With relatively little experience returning and new high school rules, calling for use of the BBCOR bats, Hofmann doesn’t expect baseballs to be flying out of yards when his Cougars suit up.
“It used to be the entire barrel was the sweet spot, but now with these new BBCOR bats, the sweet spot is smaller,” Hofmann said. “You’re just not going to see No. 7-8-9 hitters hit the ball out the opposite way, I don’t think. We’ve got to find guys that can get on base. Batting average will not be the No. 1 thing. It’s going to be on-base percentage, guys that get on base more. They’ll make stuff happen, turn lineups over and manufacture runs. I think that will be important.”
Hofmann admitted he thinks pitching and defense can be strengths for his club but that offensive production is his biggest concern.
“I think we can throw and pitch a little bit,” he said. “The unknown is how well will we hit. Will we get guys on base, move them over and get them in? … I think we’ll be OK, but really, until you get out there and play some live stuff, you don’t know.”