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Mired in a three-game losing streak and entering the 2013 baseball postseason with a lackluster 18-17 record, Nelson County was not on anyone’s short list of teams favored to win the 5th Region.
Buoyed by strong pitching, the Cardinals posted shutout wins over Bardstown (8-0), Campbellsville (10-0) and North Hardin (7-0) before falling to Central Hardin in the regional championship game.
The pitching is back, and it will difficult for coach Kelly Wood’s team to sail under the radar as the Cardinals are expected to join Central Hardin, Bethlehem and Elizabethtown as the top of the rankings.
“In some ways, in baseball you have to have some ego and be somewhat cocky,” Wood said. “I think our kids are up to the challenge this year.”
Wood’s team will certainly be challenged as their schedule includes powerhouses St. Xavier, Trinity, Pleasure Ridge Park, Lexington Christian and Mercer County. That is on top of games against all of the top teams in the 5th Region.
Nelson County only lost two players from last year’s squad and senior Jared Proctor thinks the postseason experience could pay dividends for the Cardinals.
“We gained a lot of valuable experience by making it to the regional championship,” he explained. “I hope we can make another long run into the tournament if we play like we can.”
The southpaw Proctor, who has signed a baseball scholarship with the University of Kentucky, will be the ace of the staff.
“I think signing with UK has relieved a lot of the pressure off of me,” Proctor said. “I feel now that I can just go out and play baseball without worrying about things.”
Wood thinks that his pitching staff will be the strength of his team.
“I went 20 years without a lefty on my staff and now I have five of them,” he said. “It’s a big advantage in high school baseball because you don’t see many of them and it makes them tough to hit. Left-handed pitchers do a better job of holding runners on first base.
“I expect that another senior, Alex Briney, another left-handed pitcher, will also play at the next level,” Wood said. “There are several schools looking at him.”
Others expected to take the mound for Nelson County include senior lefties Jonathan Breeding (a record-setting quarterback for the football Cardinals) and Tyler Spalding, and righties in senior Zech Maulden and junior Parker Taylor.
“Parker has really improved and is going to surprise some people,” his coach said. “And Breeding hasn’t played baseball since his freshman year, and he pitched the other night and showed a lot of promise. He’s got such a strong arm, and it showed when he played quarterback here.”
Depth at the catcher position will enable reliever Maulden and junior Caleb Ahlers to split duties and get some rest from the grind behind the plate. The pair will also share time at third base.
Briney, Proctor and Spalding will also be play first base.
“We try to play them at first base on the day the day after they pitch to give them a day to rest their arm,” Wood said. “Then we will move that guy to the outfield.”
Senior Kaleb Cecil will start at second base and will be backed up by sophomore Trey Gillis and senior Austin Ellis, who will also play shortstop.
“Sophomore Hunter Childress will be our main shortstop,” Wood said. “He started for us as a freshman and just continues to get better.”
Senior co-captain Hunter Smith will roam center field and is the vocal leader of the Cardinal team.
“Hunter is the kid who will do whatever it takes to get on base,” Wood said. “He will take a ball in the back or hit a double into the gap.”
Wood said his team will also depend on its strong pitching to make up for a lineup that is lacking in long ball hitters, although Ahlers homered in the team’s 6-3 season-opening win against Barren County.
Proctor will be at the top of the lineup with his speed. Breeding can slap the ball to different spots in the field.
The skipper is hoping his team can emulate crosstown rival Bethlehem’s discipline at the plate, noting that the Cardinals are prone to swing at too many first pitches.
“I think that is one thing that separates our two teams,” he said.
Wood went on to praise competition he’ll face across the field in the 19th District and cited the high level of coaching as a reason for the district to be much stronger this season.
“Roger Robinson over at Bethlehem was region Coach of the Year last year,” he said. “Glen Koger knows the game and helped Bardstown improve. Derek (Schuler of Washington) and Brian Coffman (Thomas Nelson) work awfully hard.”
The Cardinals are 4-2 so far against a rugged schedule, with wins over Barren County, as well as Woodford County (7-2) and LaRue County (6-0), and Monday against Campbellsville (10-0). Nelson dropped decisions to Bullitt East (9-6) and Mercer County (3-2). Nelson County took on Washington County after press time Tuesday in the district opener, and visit Thomas Nelson on Friday.