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Spring Preview: Cougars focused on reloading, not rebuilding
Prep Baseball

Chino Valley baseball players hangout on top of the dugout March 3, 2017, in Chino Valley. The Cougars are looking to reload this spring, aiming to return to the 3A state playoffs. (Les Stukenberg/Courier, File)

Chino Valley baseball players hangout on top of the dugout March 3, 2017, in Chino Valley. The Cougars are looking to reload this spring, aiming to return to the 3A state playoffs. (Les Stukenberg/Courier, File)

If you’re Chino Valley baseball coach Mark Middleton and you’ve graduated nine seniors from a 2017 team that finished with a 16-8 overall record and won the 3A West region title, you’re not surprised when the term “rebuilding year” surfaces in the 2018 preseason conversation.

But the Cougars aren’t planning on a rebuild this spring. No, Middleton likes his 2018 bunch so much that he’s not expecting a drop-off.

“I lost nine seniors, but if I go position by position, I either replaced somebody as good or better at that position,” Middleton said from practice last week. “I loved how the pieces are falling into place for this team.”

Chino Valley, which last spring edged out Northwest Christian for the West region crown with a 9-1 mark before losing in the first round of state to the eventual 3A champion Crusaders, still has the strength to contend again.

The Cougars begin the 2018 season at home versus Snowflake at 3:45 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22.

“Somehow the baseball gods looked upon me and gave me a couple of guys that were not here in school last year that transferred in,” Middleton said. “Northwest Christian is Northwest Christian. They’re such a great school and well-coached. They’re just always going to be good. Nobody likes to look on the schedule and see Chino, either.”

A major part of Middleton’s optimism is rooted in his pitching and the versatility and depth of his squad, which possesses the camaraderie and drive needed to gun for a state title.

Senior ace pitcher Tyler Hixon has legitimate help at the top of the starting rotation in the form of junior pitcher Abdiel Sanchez, a transfer from Douglas who previously lived in Chino Valley as a youngster. Junior Michael Paulus is listed as the Cougars’ No. 3 pitcher.

“He’s kind of like the savior, because we were a little nervous about just having me and Mikey as a pitcher,” Hixon said of Sanchez. “And then he comes in and throws hard. He’s going to be a great addition.”

Added Paulus, “It’s huge. He’ll be a big part in how we play and how our pitching rotation will go. It’s just amazing to have a player with his ability to just show back up in Chino.”

The right-handed Sanchez and Hixon throw hard. Hixon’s repertoire consists of a fastball, curve and a knuckleball, and Sanchez mixes in a slider and a curve with his fastball (low 80s mph).

“Hixon’s more of a pitcher than just a thrower [this season] – changing speeds instead of trying to just overpower everybody,” Middleton said. “And Abdiel’s got a great slider – holy cow. His curveball needs some work. His fastball is good, as long as he spots it with his slider. He can bring it.”

In the infield, Middleton plans to start senior Ben Grandy at catcher, and platoon senior Brian Ellis and sophomore Thomas Bartels at first base. Other starters include junior Jaydon Harguess at second base, senior Tyler Hixon or Sanchez at shortstop, and the platoon of Grandy and Bartels at third. Middleton said Grandy, a newcomer who transferred from Bradshaw Mountain, “instantly makes us a better ball club.”

In the outfield, Paulus starts in left, Sanchez gets the call in center when he’s not pitching, and senior Kaleb Chacon, an All-Region selection, plays right/center. Ellis will start in the outfield when Sanchez pitches. Ellis, Grandy and senior Colton Sandberg could pitch, too.

“I was a little nervous at first,” Hixon said of this spring’s Cougars team. “But, then, I was talking to coach about it and he kind of went over the lineup with me – and every spot but one, we gained. We’ll be just as good, if not better, than last year.”

The batting order tentatively consists of Chacon leading off, followed by Paulus, Hixon, Sanchez, Bartels, Ellis and Grandy at the Nos. 2 through 7 spots, and Harguess at No. 9. No. 8 remains a question mark. Gavin Cluff, who injured his left index finger during basketball season, likely won’t return to the team until the end of February.

“Abdiel can hit for power [in the cleanup spot], and I’ve got legitimately five guys that can leave the park,” Middleton said. “This team is going to mix it better with power and [hitting for] average.”

Doug Cook is a reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @dougout_dc. Email him at dcook@prescottaz.com or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2039.

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