The Sterling baseball team is set to open a new season with a lot of confidence in its defense around the horn, thanks to some veteran presence and a lot of depth.
“In the 7 years I’ve been coaching, this should be the best infield I’ve ever had,” Golden Warriors coach Nick Pepper said. “Usually, one of your infielders is your best pitcher and when they pitch, holes get created, so sometimes the infield falls apart. But this year, even when our infielders go to pitch, we have guys that will fill in and not miss a beat.”
Senior Cooper Willman saw some varsity playing time as a freshman, and has been a mainstay in the middle of the Warriors infield since he was a sophomore. Sterling also has sophomore Colt Adams, juniors Noel Aponte and Ryan Heffelfinger, and seniors Evan Tira and Payton Day.
“We have a lot of infielders, and some guys are going to have to go into the outfield, but we’re all ready to get better and get ready for the season,” Willman said.
The Warriors have not been able to hone those infield skills out at Gartner Park this early in the spring, with some work to get the field ready on Sunday only to have day-long rain soak the field the next day. Instead, the Warriors have been working inside, taking to the court at Challand Middle School to practice on Wednesday.
“Before every practice, we do fundamentals,” Willman said. “We get with a partner, we do short hops, forehand, backhand, all these little things, so when we get out on the field we don’t have to go through those that much and we can just get into fielding a ground ball, turning two, the bigger stuff once we get onto the field.”
Willman’s steady glovework at shortstop and pitching arm are going to be big pieces to Sterling’s success this spring, but so will his experience and leadership.
“He’s been leading football teams and basketball teams,” Pepper said, “so he’ll be carrying that leadership and winning attitude into the team.
“Just seeing him grow from his freshman year when he first got brought up to this year to really taking that leadership role to heart, that’s really what we need when we do have some young players on the team,” Pepper added.
Despite the infield depth, the Warriors are looking for people to step up at other positions, having lost all three outfielders to graduation, as well as veteran catcher Camden Bailey.
“We’ve kind of been blessed with catchers the last few years,” Pepper said. “Now, we’ve got to build another catcher. We’ve got, most likely, a sophomore [Blake Nettleton] starting at varsity as a catcher, so we’re young at that position and young in the outfield.”
The Warriors bring back the team speed which saw Willman steal 18 bases last year and Tira swipe 14. But the Warriors will have some pop in the lineup with Heffelfinger, Haze Morales and Carter Singley.
“Last year we didn’t have a ton of guys that could really hit those gaps or put it over the fence,” Pepper said. “This year, we do have a couple of guys in the middle of the lineup that can hurt teams like that. That nice mix of speed and power will be nice to have this year.”
Schedule-wise, the new conference results in an entirely new look. In the old Northern Illinois Big 12, teams would typically play a three-game series midweek, with nonconference games on the weekend. In the Western Big 6, most of the conference games will be part of Saturday doubleheaders.
The Warriors have their conference opener at Gartner Park against Moline on April 4, a Saturday doubleheader with the first pitch at 11 a.m. From there, the Warriors will host Alleman the following weekend, visit United Township the week after that, make the long trip to Galesburg on April 25, host Quincy for a pair of games May 1 (a Friday doubleheader), and visit Rock Island on May 9.
“I think it’ll be the same, just get ready through the week and be prepared for the weekend, just like we would any other game,” Adams said.
The only midweek conference games will be the two against Geneseo, both on Tuesdays.
“When you play a doubleheader in conference, it’s a little harder to space out your pitchers,” Pepper said. “We’re probably going to end up having to use more pitchers than what we have in past. It’s going to be kind of an adjustment period getting used to that, especially when we play Geneseo on a Tuesday and then have a conference doubleheader [Saturday]. It’s going to be different, for sure.”
With the weekends reserved for conference play, the midweek games will be out of conference, with the Warriors facing teams like Newman, Dixon, Erie-Prophetstown and Stillman Valley in Tuesday games.
Dylan Bryant led the Warriors’ pitching staff last year with a 1.64 ERA in 47 innings pitched, collecting five wins. Willman was the team leader in strikeouts with 53.
“I had a pretty good year last year until I got injured,” Willman said. “I think one thing that’s going to help me a lot this year is I have guys behind me that will make plays, so I can throw it in the zone a little more and if they hit a ground ball, the infielders are going to make a play.”
Sterling also comes into the season with the expectation that all 17 players on the varsity roster will see at least some time on the mound.
“We pretty much train everybody as a pitcher,” Pepper said. “Pretty much everybody will get an inning or so throughout the year, but a lot of guys will get a lot more than that. We need everybody on deck, especially with pitch counts. You can eat up a lot of pitch counts on a doubleheader weekend if you’re not careful.”