Jamie Fowler can provide a real world scenario to explain why his Independent baseball team’s No. 1 ranking in Class 3A could be slightly off track.
“Getting them to practice is a bit of an issue,” said Fowler, the Panthers’ coach. “Of my 16 kids, five have driver’s licenses.”
With three seniors and two juniors, the remainder of Independent’s squad is certainly a youthful lot. But the Panthers, who received top billing in the Kansas Association of Baseball Coaches preseason poll, are off to a 3-1 start after a doubleheader split Tuesday at No. 8 Lyons.
Part of the affinity for Independent can be traced to recent history. The Panthers were 24-2 last season and finished third in 3A after entering the state tournament as the No. 1 seed. That team graduated four All-Central Plains League first-team selections.
“The kids are playing good baseball for not having many returners back,” Fowler said. “We basically have 2 1/2 players that returned from our regular lineup last season.”
Independent’s experience resides in senior Michael Kay, an ace pitcher who is making an infield transition from first base to shortstop when he’s not on the mound. Junior Avery Reidmiller also pitches and can play third or short. Another junior, Tanner Cairns, came on late last season to strengthen the catcher position.
After piling up 37 runs in two victories at Lakin to open the season, some of Independent’s inexperience contributed to a 4-2 loss to Lyons. Kay threw a 67-pitch complete game, but the Panthers committed four errors, three of which led to four unearned runs in the fourth inning.
“It was mental mistakes more than physical,” Fowler said. “Offensively, we had a situation where we had (runners at) second and third and one out, and needed contact.
“The youngsters are picky. They’ve got to understand the circumstances and hit the pitches that are hittable.”
In a 5-1 nightcap victory, Cairns pitched six innings and Reidmiller finished for the save, working out of a bases-loaded jam.
The Panthers open league play with a 4 p.m. doubleheader Friday against Douglass at Eck Stadium. Whether Independent’s No. 1 ranking stays or goes, Fowler hasn’t shielded his team from its glare.
“I told my guys I want them to be their own team,” Fowler said. “I want them to earn this No. 1 spot. They’re smart kids, and there’s no hiding it from anybody online these days. I’m sure it’s a lot of pressure, but that’s OK.”
But the two coaches don’t mind sharing the challenge of playing two talented non-league opponents in two days.
The Eagles and Mavericks will play reigning 6A champion Blue Valley West on Friday at Maize. On Saturday, Maize South will be the host when the teams play St. James Academy.
“I get some freedom with our non-league schedule, and I like to make it as difficult as we can possibly get it,” Helm said. “I feel like it only makes us tougher in the long run.”
Maize South, No. 10 in 5A, will make its season debut in a 1 p.m. game against BV West. Maize, No. 3 in 6A, defeated Goddard 12-0 in its opener last week as Drew Johnson and Connor Lungwitz combined for the shutout. The Eagles will face BV West at 4.
BV West (1-0), 6A’s top-ranked team, is led by a talented pitching duo of Ryan Ralston and Zach Engelken. Ralston, who also plays third base, has signed with Kansas. Engelken will play at Nebraska.
St. James, No. 7 in 5A, is 1-2.