When Columbus High begins its baseball season at 4:15 Thursday against Woodward Academy, it won’t feature a Kyle Carter, a J.T. Phillips or a number of other names that helped it string together three consecutive state championships.
For the first time in nearly a decade, coach Bobby Howard is putting together a starting lineup almost from scratch, returning just a single starter from last year’s team.
Some on the outside looking in may find this cause to expect the end of the Blue Devils’ reign at the top. The players have a response to that notion:
Not so fast.
“A lot of people think that just because those guys are gone, it’s the end of Columbus here,” senior Tony Dalponte said. “We use that as motivation.”
To be clear, none of the players or coaches made any promises about the season. They weren’t putting the region and state on notice, insisting that the other teams are once again playing for second place.
Instead, they regard the roster turnover as an opportunity, one which they haven’t had in a long time.
“It’s fun,” Howard said. “It’s different than we’re used to. When you have experienced guys, you know what you’ve got and there isn’t as much of a challenge as a coach. Now, there’s more teaching involved, and I think the staff has embraced it.”
The players have, too. In response to a question about getting the opportunity to step up and fill the shoes of those that grew Columbus’ legacy, they all gave different versions of the same answer.
“It’s exciting,” said Reeves Sheffield, a senior outfielder. “We’ve been working and practicing hard. Getting to step up is going to be fun.”
“We’re ready to compete,” senior A.D. Young added.
Senior Luke Thompson may have put it best.
“It’s a chance to make ourselves known instead of relying on what’s on that fence,” he said pointing to left field where emblems of their past state titles hung. “I’m ready for us to show what we can do.”
What they can do is probably still pretty good.
Howard said that, despite the inexperience, there is a lot of athleticism in the lineup. The question marks are more in how untested the pitching is.
“We’ve got more team speed than we’ve had in a long time,” Howard said. “I really like the athleticism. We’re just untested. It’ll be interesting to see how our pitchers respond.”
And, he added, the pitchers do have a high ceiling.
“Hopefully, we can evolve into another really good team,” he said.
Hunter Swilling, the Blue Devils’ only returning starter, said that he is confident the new starters will grow into their roles just fine.
“We lost a lot of good pitching, but we’ve got a lot of good guys here who can step up fine,” he said.
Asked about which of those guys he expected to step up in a big way, Howard couldn’t name just a few guys. He mentioned Swilling, as the only returning starter, but the rest is up in the air. And that isn’t a bad thing.
“There are a lot of guys with great opportunities,” Howard said.
He joked later about overusing that refrain — “opportunities.” But, in truth, that’s what this season comes down to for Columbus.
“It’s a chance for us to prove a lot,” Sheffield said.
“We understand the situation, and we love it,” Dalponte said simply. “We don’t feel like we have an extra pressure. It’s just time for us to step up and take advantage of the opportunity we’ve got."
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.