Often relegated to practicing in a facility designed for basketball due to field conditions designed for a monster-truck rally, the Vandals wisely partook in one of the few baseball-related activities a team can pull off in a gymnasium during preseason practices.
They threw – a lot.
‘We worked 40-45 minutes after every practice on our pitcher’s program,’ said first-year Vandals head coach Luke Hohlt. ‘(Assistant coach) Steve Hosick pitched a little minor league ball, and he’s been working with our guys.’
It showed Monday in the Vandals’ season-opening 2-0 win over Fayette County rival St. Elmo.
Righties Dallas Gray and Mitch Whightsil teamed up on a two-hit shutout of the Eagles, walking just three batters between them while combining for six strikeouts.
‘We attribute that all to the pitcher’s program that we have,’ said Hohlt of the performance. ‘It’s going to do wonders for us the rest of the year.
‘I know we’re just one game out, but (VCHS’s pitchers) looked pretty good.’
As did the Vandals’ defense, which was somewhat surprising, considering they’ve been unable to get out on the field with any regularity throughout an unseasonably cold and damp March.
Vandalia committed just one miscue, and had a number of nifty defensive plays in support of Gray and Whightsil, including a running snag of a foul ball by first baseman TK Kinkhead and a heads-up play by catcher Ryan Thiele, who robbed David Cameron of an infield hit by pouncing on a dribbler and firing a strike to first.
Throw in some timely hitting early in the game against St. Elmo ace Colton Booher, and Hohlt couldn’t have asked for a more ideal head-coaching debut at his alma mater.
‘I could not be happier with our first game,’ Hohlt said. ‘We got good pitching, good defense and OK hitting, which I think we’ll get better at.
‘We hit the ball on the nose a few times; that was good to see.’
Particularly early, as the Vandals banged out three hits in a row against Booher in the bottom of the opening frame.
Ryan Thiele gave every indication it would be Vandalia’s day by reaching on a misplayed double in the Vandals’ first at-bat of the spring. Brenden Wasmuth followed with a clean single before Gray drove in the only run he and Whightsil would need with an RBI single through the hole between short and third base.
Booher managed avoid further damage in the frame by working out of a bases-loaded jam, but the Vandals struck again in the third, as Gray led off with a double and eventually scored on a Jared Herker sacrifice fly.
Booher settled down afterward, and wound up allowing just four hits and two earned runs in five innings. But the Vandals managed to get to him early, which proved to be the key to victory.
‘I’m very happy with the way we battled against him,’ Hohlt said. ‘I told the guys repeated times before the game that we have to let it be our game and not his game. We can’t be swinging at high fastballs. We’ve got to make him bring it into our zone, and I think for the most part that’s what we did.’
The Eagles, on the other hand, couldn’t get much at all going against Gray and Whightsil.
Gray worked the first four innings, striking out five, while allowing two hits and walking just one. Whightsil was even stronger, working three no-hit innings of relief for the save.
St. Elmo managed just one serious threat, as it had runners on first and third with two out in the fourth, only to see Gray escape damage by striking out Zach Durbin.
‘This time of year, I think pitching’s going to be ahead of the hitting, and we haven’t seen a live arm hardly at all,’ said St. Elmo coach Ryan Beccue, whose team has practiced just two times on its field, doing most of its preseason preparation in a parking lot.
‘We haven’t done much, but that’s not an excuse,’ Beccue said. ‘Everyone’s in the same boat right now. We just didn’t get the timely hit when we needed them.’
In addition to getting a win, Gray enjoyed a perfect 3-for-3 day at the plate. The only Vandal who had a better day, arguably, was his coach.
‘It feels good – especially to win a close game,’ said Hohlt of winning his Vandals head-coaching debut. ‘But I can only prepare the kids. They did a nice job out there and I just tried to lead them in that direction.’
The Vandals will look to continue going in the right direction Friday when they travel to Gillespie. Senior righty Brenden Wasmuth will likely take the ball for Vandalia.
St. Elmo 000 000 0 – 0 2 2
Vandalia 101 000 x – 2 5 1
WP – Gray (1-0, 4IP, 0R, 2H, 5K, 2BB). LP – Booher (5IP, 4H, 2ER, 5K, 2 BB). SV – Whightsil (3IP, 0H, 0R, 1BB, 2K). Top hitters – Vandalia: Gray 3-3 (2B, BI), Wasmuth 1-3, Thiele 1-3, Herker (BI); St. Elmo: Booher 1-3, Wright 1-3. Records – St. Elmo is 0-1, Vandalia is 1-0.