By Kyle LoJacono
The Wiregrass Ranch baseball team had several major holes to fill entering this season.
The Bulls lost four seniors, including first-team all-Sunshine Athletic Conference selections in catcher Chris Kluender and pitcher John Michael Gant. The latter went 6-0 with a 1.90 ERA and 107 strikeouts and is currently in the New York Mets farm system after being drafted.
Wiregrass Ranch, which is seeking the first playoff berth in the program’s six-year history, has found ample replacements and has rushed out to a 13-4 record while sitting in third place in Class 7A-District 9.
“I’m surprised with how the pitching has done,” said third-year Bulls coach Jeff Swymer. “The young guys have walked a bit too many people, but they’ve been able to pitch out of it.”
Stepping into that No. 1 pitching spot has been senior lefty Ryan Kopenski, while sophomore right-hander Zach Drury has slotted in at No. 2.
“Gant was a key for us last year, and we heard people wondering if our pitching was going to hold up,” Kopenski said. “I told Zach Drury before the season we’d need him to step up, and the whole pitching staff has.”
The team ERA is 1.56 while holding opponents to a .174 batting average. Kopenski said the pitchers have tried to work in combination to replace what Gant did.
“Last year we had that one guy, and now we don’t,” Kopenski said. “Everybody has to put in their innings, and things have been split up nicely. We don’t have that one guy, but we’ve got a couple guys who can get the job done.”
Kopenski is 5-2 with two saves and a 1.14 ERA. He tossed his first career no-hitter at Chamberlain in a 5-0 win on Feb. 24.
The rotation is helped by Ryan Girard (3-0), who hasn’t given up an earned run in 19.2 innings. Drury is 3-1 with a 2.90 ERA and a team-high 33 strikeouts after starting two games last year.
“They didn’t really need me that much last year,” Drury said. “I knew I had to pick up my pitching because when I did pitch I wasn’t that good. I knew I had to step my game up and be better with my command. I can’t walk batters.”
Swymer said the pitching has been the key to the fast start.
“We’re going to set up an at bat with first pitch fastball,” Swymer said. “We want to get quick outs. We want to keep pitch counts down by getting ahead early and challenging them. Kopenski does that the best. He’s not a highly recruited guy because he doesn’t light up radar guns, but he can pitch as well as anybody in the county.”
The most consistent hitters have been senior outfielder Michael Barrone and sophomore second baseman Mike Campoamor.
“I’m our leadoff hitter, so I just try to get on base as much as possible for the guys behind me,” said Barrone, a .347 hitter with 14 RBI. “The bottom of the order has been getting on, so I’ve had some RBI chances to take advantage of.”
Campoamor, who is batting .333 with 11 RBI, started most of his freshman year. He said he is very comfortable in the field but felt a need to step up his game.
“I felt more pressure this year because of the guys we lost,” Campoamor said. “I knew a lot of us were going to have to improve.”
Moving behind the plate is freshman Alex Goebel, who is hitting .310 with 15 RBI while batting third. Fellow freshman Shane Bucenell has also added to the lineup mainly as a designated hitter.
Swymer said they’ve had at least two guys hot at the plate all year.
“I hope we all get hot at the same time soon,” Swymer said. “That’s what it’ll take to compete in the district.”
Wiregrass Ranch is the only Pasco County team in 7A-9, which includes Freedom, Gaither, Steinbrenner and Chamberlain.
“We took it as we can prove to everyone that a Pasco school can hang with those kinds of teams,” Barrone said. “Honestly switching to a Hillsborough district I thought we’d be able to win a district title. We’ve got all the tools. We’ve got good pitchers on the mound; we’ve got seniors.”
Swymer, who was the pitching coach at Riverview for eight years, agrees.
“I take it to heart because I know how hard we work, and we have a year-round program,” Swymer said. “It bothers me because these kids work hard. I coached in Hillsborough. The drop off isn’t what people make it out to be. I think there’s as much top-end talent per capita in Pasco as there is in Hillsborough.
“It is going to be tough because Steinbrenner, Gaither and Freedom have a pitcher with overpowering stuff,” Swymer continued. “We’re going to have to eliminate walks, play great defense and put pressure on teams on the bases.”
Gaither hosts the 7A-9 tournament. The final is on April 26 at 7 p.m.
Wiregrass Ranch is playing in the RBI Spring Break Tournament this week. The Bulls’ next scheduled game is at Gaither on April 10 at 7 p.m.
–All stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches
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