INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Eleven games into their 2013 baseball season, the Highlanders are looking to regain the hitting stroke and pitching prowess that carried them to a 3-0 start.
Since that hot start, in which Incline outscored its opposition 31-12, bats have cooled, pitching has hit a bump and defense has struggled as the team has gone 2-5-1 in the last eight games.
But such fluctuations early in the season are to be expected when playing in snow country.
“We started out well, but we’ve kind of hit a little bit of a rut right now,” said Incline head coach Jeff Clouthier. “The bats have kind of gone silent, and we’re making a lot of baserunning errors that we need to correct. We’ve been making quite a few fielding errors as well. So those are the kinds of things we need to turn around.”
And they will, Clouthier said, as the Highlanders just practiced for the first time this season Wednesday on their home field. Before that, they traveled to Carson City twice a week to get outside, while the rest of their practice time was spent in the school gym. Clouthier expects the team’s defense in particular to improve with some regular practice time on dirt and grass.
“Once we can get outside consistently, especially on the defensive side where we’ve been making our errors, that should help,” the coach said. “Hitting-wise, I think we just have to be more disciplined at the plate and have an approach. We’re slowly learning that. But a lot of kids aren’t having the right mindset when they go up to bat, and it shows in the results.”
Add the fact that the Highlanders lost from last year five seniors and one of its top juniors — Chip Bouchard, who moved away — and their 5-5-1 record is an encouraging start.
Replacing the senior veterans are a handful of skilled underclassmen, as two freshmen, Owen Graffis and Austin Sneed, and four sophomores, Tommy Dolan, Jack Clouthier, Tommy Thompson and Ben Snyder, make up the bulk of the starting lineup. Masxsimo Battel is the lone junior starter, while first-year senior Kris Dirga and team captain Cam Powell are the elder statesmen in the lineup.
“Cam Powell is our main guy, a four-year starter,” coach Clouthier said, adding that Powell is a solid catcher and pitcher and can fill in at any infield position. “And (Dirga) has been a nice surprise for us. He’s a left-handed bat, so it’s nice to have that in the lineup.”
Jack Clouthier, a switch hitter and shortstop, leads off the batting order. He’s followed by Dirga, who can pitch, catch and play second base, Powell, and then Dolan — a big right-handed pitcher and slugger — in the cleanup hole. Thompson, who plays third base, hits fifth and is followed by Snyder (outfield, first base), Battel (pitcher, outfield, second base), Graffis (outfield) and Sneed (outfield).
Owen Price, Nicky Witty, Kenny Savelieff, Henrique De Lacerda and James Larson round out the 14-man roster.
Incline has plenty of capable pitching arms, with Dolan, Powell, Clouthier and Battel standing out as the main hurlers. All started out well, until the Highlanders ran into defending Division I-A state champion Truckee this past weekend, and the disciplined Wolverines scored 32 runs in the doubleheader sweep.
“When you face a good team like Truckee, they’re a little more disciplined hitters and they don’t swing at (non strikes) like other teams have been, and that makes a big difference,” coach Clouthier said. “We’re trying to get our guys to pitch to contact, because we struggle a bit with the walks and the wildness.”
Clouthier said once his Highlanders round into form, he expects them to be among the top contenders in the Northern Division III, along with Yerington, Battle Mountain and North Tahoe. Incline will get a look at Battle Mountain and White Pine this weekend when it plays a crossover tournament against the Ruby Mountain League (West Wendover dropped its baseball program this year).
While the Incline squad hopes to play deep into the postseason — the Highlanders lost to North Tahoe in the first round of regionals last year — the team will focus first on shaking the offseason rust.
“The ultimate goal is always to get to state. But with this young of a team, we are kind of taking it step-by-step,” Clouthier said. “Right now we’re really just trying to cut down on our errors in the field and make sure that our pitchers are throwing strikes. That’s what we’re working on. Playoffs and state is the obvious goal, but since we’re so young we’re taking it one step at a time to get to where we want to be.”