Congratulations Dustin Shoening! You’re the new head baseball coach at Tyrone Area High School.
As your reward, you’ll be inheriting a team that lost four of its top five hitters last spring to graduation, three of whom were pitching studs that chewed up innings like a paper shredder.
But that’s not all. You will also receive all-expense paid trips to Philipsburg, Central Mountain and Bellefonte as the team embarks on a new schedule following conference shifts in the off-season.
No doubt the 28-year old Shoening is excited about his first varsity coaching position, but at some point you’d think he would have to wonder if he was awarded his dream job or the booby prize. The revised Mountain League schedule alone makes his task immensely tougher than recent seasons, when the Golden Eagles competed in a MAC Division II that, while competitive, had a distinct small-school feel.
Those days are over, but despite entering the great wide open with a team loaded with players who are either young, inexperienced or both, Shoening is excited about what lies ahead.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but I think we can be very competitive and this team believes that it can be special,” said Shoening, a middle school math teacher at Tyrone who has been the Golden Eagles’ jayvee coach since 2006. “We have high goals and expectations. We know that with our tough schedule, it’s going to help us tremendously as the year goes on and in the long run.”
One thing in Shoening and the Eagles’ favor is this: they have the luxury of building around a junior as good as any player in any league in any classification in Central Pennsylvania. And while there’s going to be more to Tyrone in 2008 than just first baseman-pitcher Johnny Shaffer, he will be the focal point when the Eagles start their season Wednesday.
As a sophomore in 2007, Shaffer took the league by storm, batting .382 with 4 home runs and 23 runs batted in. He was the prime power-hitting force in the Eagles’ line up and he showed the ability to go on major hitting tears from his spot in the three-hole. Over the last seven regular-season games, he went 12-for-20 with 16 RBIs while carrying Tyrone’s somewhat inconsistent offense into the playoffs.
Tyrone may need a similar performance this season as the Eagles search for ways to replace the power numbers gone due to graduation. Tyler Gillmen and Tyler Golden each drove in 21 runs last season and accounted for 9 extra-base hits in what was a down year for Tyrone in terms of power numbers.
Shoening feels the answer is to take the program in a different direction than recent seasons, when the Eagles were apt to play for the big inning with boppers like Gillmen, Brice Mertiff, Brit Mingle and Clint Wilson in the line up. This season may be more about manufacturing runs than piling them on in bunches.
“We are going to be very aggressive on the bases and you are going to see a lot more ‘small ball,’” said Shoening. “I’m a huge proponent of putting pressure on the other team, so you will see us take some chances to produce offense.”
On paper, it would appear Shoening has the team to try just that. One thing it has a lot of is role players who have been utilized in the past as courtesy runners, pinch hitters and utility players. They are players perhaps better suited to execute a game plan than to use their athleticism to freelance offensively.
Seniors Mike Moore and Doug Rudy platooned at second base last season, while filling in as pinch hitters and courtesy runners. They combined for four stolen bases and six run. Senior Aaron Cunningham had used his speed and heady work on the base paths to earn a starting spot by the beginning of May when an injury put him on the shelf for the season, but he finished with 9 runs and 7 stolen bases in only 7 at-bats.
Those kind of players are used to Shoening’s aggressive philosophy – they all played for him in jayvees – and are smart enough to execute it.
Still, someone has to clear the table once it’s set. Along with Shaffer, Tyrone returns senior third baseman Matt Brooks, who will be starting at the hot corner for the third straight season. Last season, he finished stronger than anyone save Shaffer over the second half of the season, ending with a .342 average.
Outfielder-pitcher Donnie Hunter also returns with two solid seasons of varsity experience under his belt. After a stellar sophomore season in which he batted .315, Hunter dipped last season to .242, but still managed to score 15 runs, tops on the team.
Hunter will also help to lead a pitching staff that make up for what it lacks in experience with solid depth. Shaffer, Hunter and Randy Hoover all logged innings last season, with Hoover leading the pack with a 3-0 career record in two seasons on the varsity staff. He has 24 innings to his credit with an ERA over 4.00 to go along with 15 strikeouts, working mostly out of the bullpen.
Sophomores Eric Desch, Austin Bearfoot and Rudy, along with Brooks, will also make appearances this season, giving Tyrone seven healthy arms to work with.
One thing the staff has in its favor is the presence of senior Brock Anders behind the plate. Anders will be starting at catcher for the third straight season, last year emerging as one of the premier defensive catchers in the MAC.
“Brock, Donnie and Matt have really done a great job serving as leaders to the rest of the guys,” Shoening said about his senior returning starters. “I think they are excited to turn a new chapter and see what we can do this year.”
They will find out today when the Eagles host Philipsburg-Osceola at the Harry K. Sickler Athletic Complex. Shaffer is scheduled to start on the hill.