Cavaliers fielding an experienced nine

Feb. 28, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

Southern Lee's baseball team peaked at the right time last spring. The Cavaliers combined pitching, defense and timely hitting to finish their Cape Fear Valley schedule strong and win two state tournament games.

With all but three graduated seniors back from that squad heading into this season, which gets going when the Cavs host Pinecrest Friday night at 7 p.m., Cavalier head coach David Miller feels good about an experienced team building off of last season's lessons. Miller also knows last year's wins don't give a team any wins this season.

"We definitely have an experienced group. We're looking at having seven seniors in the starting lineup most days," Miller said.

"Every year is different though, so hopefully some of their past experiences, some of their past games, will keep them motivated and focused," he said.

The Cavaliers finished 17-12 overall and 9-3 in conference last spring. The Cavs were road warriors in states, winning 8-2 at South Brunswick and 7-2 against Williams at Elon University's ballpark. At Northeast Guilford in the round of 16, Southern Lee tied in game down to its last out in the top of the seventh before falling 4-3 in walk-off fashion in eight innings.

"Obviously it's our hope that these guys have tasted some success, some playoff success, and want to get back and go further," Miller said. "That's always what a coach wants, but each group is different."

The Cavaliers return three of their four main pitchers from last season in seniors Connor Gaines and Derek Jackson and junior Christian Wenger. Just as key, junior Ethan Helsman has been the Cavs' starting catcher for two seasons.

Gaines went 6-3 with a 2.10 ERA, five complete games and two saves last year. Wenger's role on the mound increased as last season progressed and he finished 4-0 in 11 games. In addition to his defensive duties, Helsman knocked in 18 RBI on the season.

"(Helsman) has a lot of game experience under him," Miller said.

About the battery as a group, the returners all played big roles at clutch times last season, Miller said, and "as it is with most high school teams, our success will largely start and end with that group right there."

Senior shortstop Jared Kehagias, who's going into his fourth year as a starter and who's committed to play collegiately at North Carolina Central, has led the Cav infield and batting order before becoming a senior.

Last year, Kehagias hit .308 with a .493 on-base percentage while totaling 14 runs and 10 RBI. Gaines hit .364 with two homers, 23 RBI and 17 runs.

Even accounting for a couple doses of rain and winter weather, Miller is pleased with the preseason work his Cavs have put in.

"We've had a good January and February as far as skill development is concerned," he said.

"We have a good group of guys who work hard. They're working in the right direction, with the right goals in mind, but we haven't won any games yet," Miller said.

With Friday's opener against Pinecrest and a home date Tuesday night against Northwood, the Cavaliers will get two good tests before going into conference play at Western Harnett on Mar. 8.