Panthers look to build on 2014 success

by Matt Kraus Review Co respondent

PLYMOUTH – The 2015 Plymouth Panther baseball team has the success of and experience from the 2014 campaign to draw on as the new season moves on.

Ten letter winners, including four starters, return from the 2014 team that went 28-5, won its second straight Eastern Wisconsin Conference championship and made a trip to the WIAA state summer baseball tournament. In the state semifinals, the Panthers lost, 2-1, to eventual champion Brookfield Central.

“Last year’s success helps these guys understand what it takes to win a conference and sectional championship.”

“The guys that are returning are excited and have the goal of going even further in accomplish- ing the ultimate goal of bringing home a state championship,” said Panther head coach Butch Cain.

Returning to the Panthers’ 2015 lineup are three all-state honorees in 2014: senior Zac Cain, a two-time, first-team selection; senior Tyler Willeford, second team; and senior Matt Olig, honorable mention.

Cain returns as the conference’s Co-Player of the Year and All-EWC first-team selection in 2014. He was the league’s leading hitter with a .545 average and the leader in seven other offensive categories, including RBIs with 31. For the overall season, Cain led PHS in batting with a .480 average and RBIs with 44.

Playing seven different defensive positions during the year, Cain dominated on the mound – leading the conference in wins, with a 7-0 record, a ERA at 0.36 and lowest opponents’ batting average of .104.

Willeford, an All-EWC firstteam outfielder in 2014, will move from center field to behind the plate, replacing standout catcher Luke Held, a two-time, first-team All-EWC performer and a second-team all-state selection. Offensively, Willeford and Held had comparable statistics but Held’s experience behind the plate and defensive abilities will give Willeford a high mark to aim for.

Willeford hit .368 with 32 RBIs last season.

Olig enters 2015 after a season that coach Cain called a “breakout year.” Olig was third in conference batting at .447, and was 4-0 on the mound and compiled a 1.27 ERA which was good for fifth in the EWC.

Beside Held, the Panthers will look to replace multi-year starters Clay Henning, a three-time firstteam, All-EWC shortstop, and Jake Richards at second base, a first-team All-EWC selection in 2014 and second team in 2013.

Also having graduated were right fielder Justin Picard, firstteam All-EWC, and third baseman

Luke Hojnacki, second-team All-EWC, last year.

“We will miss the play and intangibles of Clay [Henning] and Luke [Held] at shortstop and catcher, respectfully. Both guys were rooted in our lineup at our leadoff position as well as solidifying our defense up the middle,” said coach Cain.

“Tyler will do a good job for us at catcher and a rotation of guys will give us consistent play at shortstop.

“Second base, third base and right field will be positions in which we will have to find solid play from a rotation of guys,” said coach Cain.

In addition to Cain, Olig and Willeford, the other starter back is senior utility player/pitcher Cole Karczewski who played left field last season.

The Panthers’ pitching staff returns a large number of innings from last season with Cain, Olig, sophomore Jake Steinhardt and senior Drew Schweiger in the fold as starters.

“We have confidence in these guys and believe they will be sharp when their turn in the rotation comes up,” said Cain who is in his 12th season at the helm.

“We look forward to Derek Schweiger, Cole Karczewski, TJ Moegenburg and Jack Sackett being able to give us quality time when we are in need of pitching during the four- and five-game weeks.”

Experience will once again play a role for the Panthers in 2015 but there will be room on the squad for youth and inexperience. Following a successful freshman year at the varsity level, Steinhardt will return for his sophomore season. Sophomore Derek Schweiger is looked to as a contributor to the team’s success. Seniors Nick Stucke and Zach Gambrell will add depth to the Panthers’ lineup after not playing in 2014.

Coach Cain’s formula for success in 2015 doesn’t change from the 2014 season.

“Our game plan will again be to pound the strike zone with two-thirds to three-fourths of our pitches thrown for strikes while attacking the inner and outer thirds of the plate,” he said.

“Our defense will need to be sharp and our offense will again have to hit for average. We must force the hand of the opposition whenever possible.

“We have to be consistent and play together with different guys stepping up on a nightly basis.”

Staying healthy always remains a key to success as the Panthers look to challenge Kewaskum, Campbellsport, New Holstein, Kiel and Sheboygan Falls as a front-runner in the EWC race. Falls finished second in the league last year and lost to PHS in the sectional finals.

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