With seven seniors graduated from the 2021 team, and a new head coach for the first time in 13 years, there is definitely a new look to the Creston baseball team this year.
But, the new man in charge is no stranger to the program. Head coach Brandon Phipps was a pitcher and infielder for his predecessor, Steve Birchard, and assisted him as a coach for three summers while a student at Northwest Missouri State University.
Phipps, a 2014 Creston graduate, ran cross country and distance races for the track team at Northwest Missouri State. He was athletic director and a teacher for three years at West Nodaway High School in Missouri, where he also served as head boys basketball coach for two years.
Phipps was a volunteer assistant coach with Birchard and assistant Jaden Driskell in 2021 when he had been hired as a physical education teacher and coach in Creston for this school year. He’s excited about the opportunity to lead the program.
“My goal is to have our best athletes out for baseball,” Phipps said. “Our focus is on making baseball fun and enjoyable, and having the mentality that we are going to expect to win a lot of games. We want people competing on every pitch.”
Developing a sound defense behind pitchers who throw strikes is a primary focus, Phipps said.
There are only two seniors and two juniors on this year’s squad, after the graduation last year of seniors Cole Strider, Evan Bruce, Britian Miller, Gavin Shawler, Daniel Merritt, Keagan Smith and Ethan Freeman.
The lone seniors are Avery Fuller and Gage Skarda. Juniors are Kyle Strider and Gannon Greenwalt. Phipps said a 13-member sophomore class helps fill the varsity vacancies from last year’s team that went 8-21 overall and 6-14 for ninth place in the Hawkeye Ten Conference.
Two players return with all-conference honors from a year ago. Greenwalt played second base last year and was named to the Hawkeye Ten second team. He’s moved to center field this year. Sophomore Cael Turner returns at shortstop after earning honorable mention as a freshman. He was the starting pitcher and hit two home runs in a 6-2 opening loss at Carlisle Monday.
Other projected starting pitchers are Strider, Greenwalt, Fuller. and sophomore Dylan Hoepker. Those starting the season in relief roles on the mound include Skarda, sophomores Dylan Calvin, McCoy Haines and Sam Henry along with freshman Parker Varner.
Strider is the usual varsity catcher, with Skarda moving behind the plate from his right field position when Strider is on the mound. Fuller and Henry will share duties at first base and as designated hitter.
With Greenwalt moving to the outfield, second base is now manned by sophomores Dylan Hoepker and Conner Wiley. Hoepker slides over to shortstop when Turner pitches. McCoy Haines plays third base. Early in the season such as tonight’s postseason soccer game, Varner steps in at the hot corner during Haines’ absence.
Calvin, Greenwalt and Skarda offer a lot of speed in the outfield positions and that’s by design, especially in moving the all-conference Greenwalt to center. Gavin Millslagle will play outfield when one of the others is pitching.
“The way people are teaching hitting now, trying to spray it in the gap and hit it in the air, we want to make sure we have good athletes in the outfield,” Phipps said. “I like our defense.”
The Panthers managed only four hits in the opening game Monday, three of them by Turner. Phipps said he expects the young lineup to improve offensively during the season.
“The Carlisle lefty is good and will win a lot of games for them,” Phipps said. “More live at-bats will fix a lot of things. The top half of our order is pretty solid with varsity experience. The bottom half has a lot of kids new to the lineup who just have to find a way to compete and get on base.”
Defending Hawkeye Ten champion Lewis Central has a strong senior class returning to be a top contender again. St. Albert had some graduation losses but returns players from a team that made a run to the Class 1A state finals a year ago. Clarinda, a Class 2A state tournament team in 2021, and Glenwood also have a lot of all-conference talent returning.
The high school baseball season was moved a week earlier this year, with 3A postseason play beginning July 8 and Class 1A starting on June 30.
“I think the state wanted a dead week (before fall sports camps and practices), so that’s a big thing in moving it up,” Phipps said.
Drew Dornack, former Orient-Macksburg head coach and a teacher and coach in other sports in the Creston district, is the new varsity assistant coach. Physical education teacher Joey Mitchell is the freshman coach and second varsity assistant. He was formerly sophomore coach at Ottumwa.
In the new middle school program, Tony Neubauer will coach eighth grade and Bryce Schafer guides the seventh-grade team.
“I think it’s a great way to build the foundation together and get those kids practicing every day with coaches who know our system,” Phipps said. “Having that same philosophy across the board is really important.”
The Panthers host Nodaway Valley tonight (JV at 5:30 p.m., varsity at 7:30 p.m.) The makeup game from Tuesday at fourth-ranked Winterset will be played Friday before another busy slate of home games next week.
(* — letterwinner)
Seniors — Gage Skarda*, Avery Fuller*.
Juniors — Kyle Strider*, Gannon Greenwalt*.
Sophomores — Gavin Millslagle, McCoy Haines*, Cael Turner*, Conner Wiley, Dylan Hoepker, Dylan Calvin*, Landon Lovely, Sam Henry, Milo Staver, Damion Meyer, Jack Walter, Quinten Fuller, Max Chapman.
Freshmen — Weston Trapp, Parker Varner, Mattias Schultes, Tanner Klejch, Braydon Schoon.