By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ALEXANDRIA, Ind. —
It took more than a month to finally play last year’s Nick Muller Memorial Baseball Tournament championship game.
As far as Alexandria is concerned, however, it was more than worth the wait.
The centerpiece of the Tigers’ 18-11 season was a 6-5 victory against Pendleton Heights that gave the school its first Muller title in 12 tries.
“It was awesome,” Alexandria coach Jeff Closser said of the breakthrough win. “Our kids want to win it every year. For our program, it’s a great asset.”
Seven returning starters, and eight victories coming back on the mound, also are nice places to start.
Alexandria lost a tremendous leader in Mitch Yeagy, and at-bats leader Justin Quinn also graduated. But brothers Donnie and Derek Dinehart lead a strong group of seniors this time around.
Donnie Dinehart hit .400 with two home runs and 22 RBIs last season, and Derek finished at .354 with three homers and 17 RBIs. Jake Fox (.325, 0, 9), sophomore Owen Young (.353, 0, 14) and junior Drew Johnson (.365, 0, 4) also are back.
Senior Isaac Mitchell is the top returning pitcher after winning five games and throwing 40 2/3 innings last year. He’ll be joined on the mound by sophomore Blaize Kelly, Fox and Donnie Dinehart.
“We’ve got a lot of guys back,” Closser said. “And we’ve got high expectations because we believe we’ve got a chance to improve.”
The early returns have been positive.
The Tigers are 2-0 after a 4-3 victory against Clinton Central on Saturday. They’ll play again today at Delta before opening tournament play Tuesday against Lapel.
Closser is happy with the fast start, especially after unseasonable snowfall kept the team indoors for the majority of preseason practice.
“We’re in the same situation as everybody else,” he said. “We haven’t been outside a whole lot. But I told the guys we’re not going to use that as an excuse because everybody else is in the same boat.”
An experienced Bulldogs team, coming off a strong 23-8 campaign, concerns Closser far more than the weather.
Alexandria would love to become the first team to repeat as Muller champion, but the road ahead is fraught with peril. It starts with Lapel and would likely include a second-round date with Anderson and championship matchup against Pendleton Heights or Central Indiana Conference rivals Frankton or Elwood.
This season promises to be one of the more unpredictable and competitive fields in recent years. And that’s saying a lot for a tournament that has produced four different champions in the past four seasons.
“It’s a great field,” Closser said. “There’s so much talent in Madison County, and then you throw in the rivalry thing. These teams all know each other, these kids all know each other and you don’t want to get beat by those guys. It’s a good early season tournament, it gives you a good feel for the sectional (format) and you really get to see where you’re at.
“We’d like to be the first repeat champion. But you’ve got to put together three quality games to beat programs like that.”