Coming off nine straight seasons with 21 or more wins, including 26-12 in 2018, and four SIRR Ohio Division titles in the last five years, last season was very disappointing for Benton baseball coach Brett Blondi when his Rangers fell to 15-14 and to the middle of the conference with a 5-5 record.
Benton's season ended in the first round of the regional with a young squad that had no seniors, but Blondi is hoping the experience gained by his young squad will make this year much better.
"One of the themes from last year was we could beat anybody - we were very competitive with the best teams - and we could get beaten by anybody," Blondi said. "Luckily at Benton we haven't had many of those kind of seasons. Last year was a perfect storm. We didn't have any seniors, we had guys playing in the outfield that never played there before and we were pitching freshmen and sophomores, but we made it through. This year we have everybody back with a full season under their belts."
Even though the 20-win streak was broken the 2019 Rangers extended Blondi's streak of above .500 finishes to 11 straight years.
"Last year was not a tremendous amount of fun, but I can already see the kids are a lot better in terms of their chemistry," Blondi said. "The first week of practice was really good. The kids are taking more ownership of their product on the field. I've got so many good kids who can play my biggest problem is finding the right mix. I feel very comfortable with all 17 players on the varsity level. They have the potential to be really good."
When the season finally starts Blondi has four seniors, eight juniors and five sophomores to pick a lineup from. The four seniors are pitcher/infielder Tyler Butler, centerfielder Jared Shaw, outfielder Jaron Picklesimer and utility infielder/outfielder Brady Gischer.
"I have no clue who is going to play where at this point," Blondi said. "We have really good kids. They make good grades and don't get into trouble. They are a fun bunch to work with."
One of the strengths of the Rangers this season is their pitching staff that is 11 strong.
"We have a minimum of six guys who can start," Blondi said. "I'm pretty confident of any those six starting, including Mitch Giacone, who mainly came out of the bullpen last year. He appeared in 13 games tossing 22 innings with 21 strikeouts. That was a tremendous year for a sophomore at the varsity level."
Sophomore Reid Baumgarte is coming off a great freshman season where he earned a spot in the starting pitching rotation in the eighth game and finished with a 4-3 record and a team leading 1.61 ERA tossing two complete games in four starts. The right-hander also made four appearances out of the bullpen.
Butler was the workhorse on the pitching staff tossing 41.2 innings in 11 appearances, including eight starts and three complete games, with a 2.69 ERA and a 4-2 record. His strikeout to walk ratio was excellent with 48 strikeouts to 18 walks
Dillon Poe's season lasted just 17 games when he suffered an Achilles injury. The junior opened the season in starting rotation posting a 1.88 ERA in four starts with two complete games. In the field he was the starting shortstop and at the plate he batted .333 with 12 RBIs.
"Poe was a big part of our team last year hitting in the two hole, so when he went down that left a big hole," Blondi said. "That made us try some different things. He's back healthy and looks good."
Giacone was the ace out of the bullpen making nine appearances earning two saves and posting a 2-1 record with a 2.50 ERA. The right-hander also made four starts, including a three-hit complete game win. The junior also started eight games at second base with eight assists and two doubleplays.
Junior lefthander Kael Pearce (3-4) was a pleasant addition to the pitching staff last year throwing 29.2 innings with four starts and five relief appearances and a 5.19 ERA with 36 strikeouts and 11 walks.
"Kael pitched well as a freshman in a spot start kind of situation and had thrown well at the JV level," Blondi said. "His brother was one of the best pitchers that we've ever had, so he's got pitching in his blood. We knew he would do well for us."
Junior T.J. Cocke made seven appearances with three starts. In his first outing against Centralia the right-hander pitched five innings and gave up just one hit while striking out eight to earn the win.
As a team the Rangers batted .271 led by Butler with a .370 batting average, 35 RBIs, eight homeruns, including a grand slam, 26 runs scored and 12 stolen bases.
Butler had a hit in 22 of the 29 games and finished the season with a six-game hitting streak during which he batted .571 with 11 RBIs and three stolen bases. Butler also had 10 multi hit games and had two games where he drove in four runs and two with three.
Shaw was second on the team with a .355 batting average and ended the regular season on a 10-game hitting streak during which he hit .406.
Catcher Kanon Cantrell is coming off a banner season. The junior led the team in hits with 30 and doubles with eight, was second in RBIs with 27, homeruns with four and tied for second in stolen bases with nine, and third in batting average at .348.
"I can't imagine there are too many catchers better than Kanon Cantrell," Blondi said. "This year we've got good athletes on the infield. Last year we had no outfield experience, so when the ball was in the air we didn't know what was going to happen. This year our outfield is much improved."