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Before the season, Roger Robinson felt like he had a pretty good Bethlehem team returning after losing just two seniors from last year’s club, which won 29 games and got to the region semifinals, where they put a brief scare into eventual region champ Central Hardin.
“We’re really pleased with the caliber of kids we’ve got returning,” the Eagles’ coach said. “But I told the kids we wouldn’t be 29-11 this year.”
If Bethlehem was going to build upon and hope to better last year’s results — best in school history for wins, and the first time the Eagles won a region tournament game — Robinson reasoned his talented bunch would need to be tested.
Boy, have the Eagles ever been tested.
“Compared to last year, this year’s schedule is way better,” Bethlehem senior Blake Brangers said.
That still might be understating it. So far, the Eagles have navigated an early gauntlet of some of the top teams in the state, suffering losses to power programs such as St. Xavier, Lexington Catholic and Newport Central Catholic — a combined 12 state championships between them — as well as Trinity. They managed a 3-2 win over traditional power Covington Catholic on Saturday and also have a 7-6 win over No. 10 Bullitt East to their credit, and the murderer’s row so far must have made it seem like a walk in the park Monday during Bethlehem’s 7-1 win over Green County in the 5th Region All A Classic.
“We need to see that level of competition every day,” Robinson said.
He’ll almost get his wish, as a number of other difficult games litter the remainder of the schedule, including a pair with top 20 Butler, as well as No. 15 Danville and another against Bullitt East. Also lurking are tough tests with North Hardin, Elizabethtown and Tates Creek, and two games with Nelson County that figure to be must-watch district battles.
“I think it will help us get ready for the tournaments we have,” Brangers said.
Fellow senior Jimmy Keating said getting this kind of challenge will serve to magnify the mistakes the team makes, but help them clean up those mistakes early on. In the meantime, he said, you can’t get down on yourself if the losses start to pile up.
“You’ve just got to look at all the things we’re doing right,” he said, and build upon that.
Robinson admitted this would be one of his more demanding coaching jobs, making sure his team’s mental state doesn’t waver despite the minefield that is the Eagles’ schedule, and making sure players know that sacrificing a few wins now will make for a more difficult tournament out later on.
“We feel like we’ve learned more about our team in the first two weeks of the season than a whole season previously,” he said. “These teams expose our weaknesses. We feel like we’re trying to raise the bar” for the program.
The weaknesses aren’t many.
Bethlehem boasts a strong pitching staff with everybody returning. Included among that is a lethal 1-2 combo at the top of the rotation in Keating and fellow senior Connor Ballard. Both have added a few extra MPH to their fastball, as has senior Alan Webb. Other experienced arms return in J.T. Mattingly, Thomas Osborne, Corey Robinson and J.T. Smith.
It makes for a luxury for Brangers, who will split time at catcher with junior Chance Bodine.
“I’ve been working with our pitchers since I was a freshman,” Brangers said. “I know them and they know me.”
Brangers highlights a slugging Bethlehem lineup. He was second on the team in hits (45) and was tops in RBIs (36) and OPS (.946), and will be either at first base or DH when he’s not behind the plate. He’s been even better so far this year, with a .989 OPS and nine hits and six RBIs in eight games. Webb, the team’s primary first baseman, also swings a heavy bat with a .933 OPS last year.
Setting the table for those two are Ballard, who will play center field when not on the mound, and Jake Yates, who moves from second base to shortstop this year. Those two combined for 91 hits and 64 runs scored last year. Robinson said those two will move around the top of the order.
Third baseman John Riney also provides pop after producing an .893 OPS last year, and Zach Smith will also spend some time there and in left field after tallying an .872 OPS in 2013. Osborne, who moves to second base, and Nolan Johnson, who will be in right, both know their way onto the basepaths.
Robinson said there’s been good competition for starting positions, and with so many returning players it’s not been hard to get everyone on the same page.
“We’ll have one or two guys on the bench every game who feel like they deserve to be in the starting lineup,” he said.
Keating said that competition has led to improvement in what has already been a darned-good defense.
“No matter who’s behind me, I know I’ve got a great defense back there,” he said.
The Eagles are 3-5 and host Thomas Nelson tonight at 5:30 p.m.