By BRADEN LAYER
---- — NEWTON — Newton battled to a 14-20 record in 2012, and have since lost a number of talented seniors to graduation. Peyton Wyatt, Mark Mammoser, AJ Hyatt and Connor Walters have all moved on, leaving behind a fresh-faced group eager to make their mark in the Little Illini Conference.
"This will be a great chance for a young team to show what they are made of," Eagles' coach Jason Fulton said.
Newton will still have three capable seniors to help the new contributors, starting with senior pitcher Elijah Knepper. The southpaw has already committed to Olney Central College, and should again be one of the top pitchers across central Illinois.
"He's pretty good," Fulton said. "Six-four lefty, throws pretty hard, very good control with a live fastball and sharp breaking ball," Fulton said. "(He's) one of the best pitchers in the area."
Knepper missed all of basketball season with a knee injury, but is working hard to get back to full strength. Fulton expects him to be cleared April 1, and knows the Eagles' success will like be determined by his job on the mound.
"It's going to depend on how much we can ride Knepper," he said. "If he struggles, we will probably struggle."
Seniors Dylan Davidson and Derek Schackmann will also see time on the mound. Davidson, who is coming off a stellar winter season in which he earned honorable mention IBCA All-State honors in basketball, will use his superb athleticism to track down fly balls in center field when he is not on the mound. Schackmann figures to be used plenty in the outfield as well.
A trio of juniors will give Fulton five strong arms to turn toward in total with Tanner Shull, Allen Taylor and Kyle Woods all logging innings at pitcher. Shull gives the Eagles a little more experience on the mound after performing as one of Newton's top pitchers last spring, and will hold down the third base position when he's not tossing fastballs. Taylor will also see time in the outfield.
Shull started game one for Newton Saturday, tossing three innings in a last-inning 8-7 loss to Pana. Woods and Caleb Chesnut also saw time on the hill.
Both Taylor and Woods are considered newcomers for the Eagles, having seem limited action during their sophomore campaigns.
Catcher Lucas Huston should help the inexperienced pitching staff settle down in 2013, as Huston was a fixture on last year's lineup.
"He did a nice job last year," Fulton said. "He'll have a better year this year. He's very good behind the plate."
Completing the infield are Chesnut and Weston Shipman. Shipman is a powerful lefty that should start plenty of games at first, while Chesnut will primarily play short stop with some innings on the mound. When Shull is not pitching, he will hold down the third base position.
The rest of the open spots should be hotly contested as the season gets underway.
"(We) graduated a ton of talent last year," Fulton said. "We're going to be playing a lot of juniors, a couple sophomores."
Knepper will have to be especially huge to adjust the offense that was lost from last year's senior-laden group. Newton's youth could show at the plate, where Fulton believes his team faces the biggest question mark.
"More than anything," he said, "we probably graduated most of our offense. Caleb will be one of our better hitters, and Tanner."
In spite of the youth, Fulton hasn't adjusted his goals. He expects the Eagles to be a challenger in the new LIC no matter who cracks the rotation.
"We set our goals to win the conference and win the regional every year," he said. "We have a legitimate shot of winning the conference, but we know it's going to be very difficult."
Newton currently sits at 0-1, and travel to Altamont on Thursday.