Walker baseball coach Randy Sandifer may have picked a fitting way to describe the school’s summer baseball season.
“I think the first couple weeks, mentally we were still kind of testing the water,” he said. “We didn’t really want to commit to jump in, so we kind of kept our toe in. If it was just right, then we were OK.
“I think the more we played, we just kind of became a little kid and just jumped in the water.”
Walker players had ample opportunities to prove themselves as the Wildcats played 86 games between three teams when the summer season started May 24.
“It’s a lot of baseball crammed into about 35 days,” Sandifer said.
Sandifer said the summer season is designed to be a bit grueling, but there is solid reasoning behind it.
“What happens is they’re excited when the summer first starts, and then you kind of get into the workouts,” he said. “It becomes almost like a job where you’re up early in the morning then you’re playing at night. They normally get tired about the middle of the second week because there’s not really a day off. At that point, you’ve got to kind of push through it mentally. That’s the part where, to me, it’s important because the season is also long.
“If you can get them beyond the mental grind of it to where they can just show up and play and you eliminate a lot of the mental mistakes, that’s the biggest thing that I’m looking for, especially the second half of the summer. Playing all the time, you see what they can do physically, but what I’m really looking for is the ones that mentally can tough it out and stay in games mentally and not lose it.”
Sandifer said the team accomplished that goal.
“That’s probably the part that impressed me the most,” he said. “With as young as we were, we got better as the summer went along. That was very big. I think we had to stay mentally focused, and I think that’s what happened.”
Sandifer pointed to Walker’s 8-2 win over Denham Springs as a pivotal point in the season as Charlie Pellitier hurled a complete game two-hitter with four strikeouts.
“I think that game kind of proved that we could play and we weren’t questioning ourselves and if we could play with people,” Sandifer said. “We started kind of finding ways to win instead of finding ways to lose. I think that kind of led us into that last week.”
During that last week, Parkview Baptist no-hit the Wildcats in a 13-0 win, but Walker bounced back to go 4-0 over the weekend in what turned out to be the final games of the season.
“We just kind of played baseball, and that was very encouraging,” Sandifer said of the final weekend. “It’s nothing exciting. There were no gigantic hits or anything like that. It was not necessarily great pitching or anything. We just played solid baseball.”
He said keys for the Wildcats during the final weekend were basics --limiting errors, sound pitching and getting key hits with baserunners on.
“To me, that’s the stuff that kind of carries over to the spring because that’s really how you have to play in the spring,” Sandifer said. “That’s the formula that wins for you.
“To win the last four kind of solidified how far we’d come.”
Sandifer was also pleased the team’s offensive output wasn’t limited to a handful of players, something he hopes will pay off down the line.
“I felt like last spring we were a little handcuffed in the fact that we only played about 10 or 11 guys,” Sandifer said. “Realistically, I’d really like to have 13-14 guys to be able to play because things are going to happen during the school season. I think we found those 13-14 guys.”
The Wildcats went into the summer looking to find replacements for the loss of a large senior class, including pitchers Lane Thomas and Chase Jeansonne. Sandifer was hoping Gavin Adams might anchor the new-look rotation, but a shoulder injury early in the season changed those plans.
“It was unfortunate for him, but really what it did was it forced us to find other people,” Sandifer said.
Sandifer balanced the summer pitching workload among a number of players – Pellitier, Brennen Major, Christian Cassels, Cody King and Cameron Crow. Sandifer also said Adam Steudlein was a “workhorse” for Walker’s 16-and-under team, and Paul Howard was a late-season addition to the Metro League roster from the JV team.
“We may not have Lane (Thomas) on the mound, or (Chase) Jeansonne at the top, but what we’ve got is we’ve got more depth now than we had last year, so that’s encouraging,” Sandifer said.
“I think we established some roles. I think we’ve got four or five guys. Last year, we had to piece together the Tuesday games. I think this year, we’re going to have five guys that we can call starters and go and have two or three more guys behind them that we’re not constantly having to throw the same guys what seems like every other day.”
While the roles may be somewhat established, Sandifer said there’s still room for the pitching staff to improve before the season begins in February.
“Most of them, for the most part, can throw fastballs for strikes, but we’re going to have to be able to throw other pitches for strikes,” Sandifer said. “A couple of them are going to have to develop some out pitches – something that when they get two strikes we can put a little more pressure on the hitter.”
Sandifer said he was pleased with the Wildcats’ defense over the summer with Camden Carver at third, Crow at shortstop, Eli Turnage at first and Graham Smith, Seth Richardson, Grant Edwards, Kevin Veguilla and Brennen Major working in the outfield.
“I think defensively, we’re a lot better than we were a year ago,” Sandifer said. “We made errors like everybody during the summer, but I felt like the guys that we’re expecting to play next spring, I thought we played very well.”
The logjams for the Wildcats come at second base and catcher with Armon Daigre, Gabe Inman and Dylan Pitre competing at second base.
“There’s three guys there that I felt like all improved, so defensively, we have some options with them,” he said.
Sandifer said versatility will help with Pitre also being able to play in the outfield while Inman can also play shortstop and third base.
“Really that’s a huge key,” Sandifer said. “It’s not necessarily being a starter at one position, but Gabe’s going to be a guy that’s going to be able find his way on the field all the time simply because he’s going to be able to do multiple things.”
Dakota Wilson, Spencer Murray, Steudlein, Caleb Webb and Mason Morgan are in the mix at catcher, where versatility is also going to be a factor.
“The thing with the catchers is all of them swing the bat well,” Sandifer said. “I don’t need one catching and one DHing and three sitting on the bench. If there’s something else that they can do, and we can plug them in, that only helps us.
“There are going to be some tough decisions there (at second and catcher), they’re going to have to grind it out and understand that really there’s not a lot of off days.”
Sandifer stressed that nothing is set in stone based on the summer season.
“This is just a starting point,” he said.
“There’s a lot of water (that’s) still going to go under the bridge between now and next February.”
Sandifer was also pleased with the way the young team came around at the plate after some early-season struggles.
“Confidence is a great factor,” Once we started getting some hits, I felt like it kind of carried over to each person, and it kind of relaxed them.”
Sandifer said the team’s improvement at the plate over the summer came from being able to adjust to hitting breaking balls.
“That’s the biggest difference in moving up from freshman to JV or varsity,” he said. “It’s normally not the fastball that’s that much different. It’s the breaking ball that’s a little sharper. We were able to do that. We started laying off some pitches and taking a few more walks and not swinging and getting ourselves out as much.”
Sandifer is hopeful the Wildcats will be in good shape, in more than one way, once the season begins in earnest.
“I think they understand now with the lifting, if they get a little stronger, some of those balls, if you could add 10, 15 20 feet to a hit, what a difference that would make – arm strength-wise the difference that would make on some plays,” he said. “It’s a slow progression, and I think the good thing is, most of these guys will be back for multiple years.”