BAINBRIDGE -- After a 2007 campaign in which it posted a 25-7 record and finished just one game short of the state finals, the North Putnam baseball team begins the 2008 season in a similar situation to the other three Putnam County teams -- short on quality practice time and uncertain about their pitching.
Gone for the Cougars is ace Jake Mullis, who posted a 14-0 record, 148 strikeouts and a 0.45 earned run average. Also gone are fellow graduates Brayden Dahlstrom and Brian Blaydes, the only other Cougars to have thrown more than 10 innings last season.
"I'm pretty confident about our overall team," North Putnam coach Norm Fish said. "I have confidence in defense and our bats to start out. Pitching has me a little concerned.
"If you take Mullis off your staff, it's going to be difficult," he continued.
What the Cougars have is returning experience from their position players. Several juniors and seniors return to their former positions.
"We have a pretty good nucleus of five returning starters," Fish said.
The Cougars' three returning senior starters are catcher Jordan Berry, shortstop Kyle Rooker and outfielder J.T. Francies.
Berry led the Cougars in batting average last year with a .427 average. He also managed the veteran pitching staff from behind the plate. This year he will be in for a different challenge.
"(The new pitchers) are going to have to step up and make big plays when we need them," Berry said. "The young pitchers are going to have to do their jobs."
Rooker batted .396 with nine doubles, three triples, six home runs and 22 stolen bases. Francies hit .273 with 12 steals.
The Cougars other two returning starters are juniors Griffen Dahlstrom and Kyle Alcorn. A first baseman, Dahlstrom batted .369 and tied Rooker for the team lead with six homers. Second baseman Alcorn hit .329 and stole 21 bases.
Adding to this experienced core will be David Church, a senior who will be a varsity regular for the first time this season.
"From watching the guys before me, I'm just trying to attack the season ready to go and ready to be out there," Church said.
"We're really excited about this year," he said of the senior class. "We've been playing together since little league, so we're looking forward to our senior year."
But the questions still come back to the pitching. Fish has a list of seven guys, some combination of which will likely platoon on the mound until things sort themselves out.
Of these, Dahlstrom is the most experienced, as he pitched about 10 innings last year. Berry may also come out from behind the plate to make appearances on the mound, with Dahlstrom catching for him. Church and junior Jacob Lasiter are the Cougars' other two upperclass hurlers.
However, sophomore Brock Jones and freshmen Tyler Watson and Reece Herron could also see action. The coach doesn't expect immediate results from these three but hopes they will be able to step up over time.
Rooker has also pitched in the past but has had arm troubles. At this point Fish has no plans to pitch the senior, but if his arm seems healthy, he could be the coach's ace in the hole.
While the Cougars wait for the pitching to sort itself out, they will rely on their good offense and staunch defense. Fish wants to see his pitchers throw strikes and put that defense to use.
So far, though, the Cougars' biggest battle has been the elements. Struggling with wet and cold weather, they have resorted to practicing inside much of the time.
"It seems like last year we got out more," Fish said. "This year we've been in the gym more than I'd like. There's only so much you can do in the gym, so I'm a little concerned about that."
The Cougars are off to a fast start to 2007, having swept Greencastle in their season-opening WCC series as well as defeating Turkey Run on Thursday night.
They return to the field at 11 a.m. Saturday when they host Covington.