Youthful Hillmen ready to play ball

Placer has just 2 returning seniors this season
By: Matthew Kimel, Journal sports editor
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If you take a look at Placer High School’s 2013 baseball roster and notice that there are only two returning seniors, you might not want to jump to any quick conclusions.

“We feel like people are going to think we’re rebuilding, but these kids have played ball for a long time together,” said coach John Hilton, whose Hillmen won the Pioneer Valley League title last year and have just three seniors on this year’s squad. “It’s a really good feel for this team.”

Opening day is Friday at James Field for Hilton’s club, which also features 12 juniors and three sophomores. The first pitch is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. when the Hillmen host Rio Linda in a non-league game.

Under the senior leadership of infielder Casey Yunk and pitcher Kodiak Gregersen, Hilton believes the Hillmen can be a competitive bunch when league play rolls around and possibly make the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.

“We’re really happy with the way the team is coming together,” the coach said. “We’ve got a lot of youth and they bring a lot of energy. They’re absorbing things like sponges.”

In Yunk, Hilton sees a ballplayer with a quarterback-like mentality who knows how to direct fellow teammates and tell them what’s going on.

Gregersen is the Hillmen’s lone returning senior pitcher.

“He works hard everyday,” Hilton said. “He doesn’t showboat. He just plays the game. His work ethic is really good. He’s the senior pitcher; for many of them it’s their first varsity competition.”

Gregersen said him and Yunk are in charge of making sure the younger guys get used to playing at the school’s highest level.

“Last year we had about 12 or 13 seniors,” Gregersen said. “A lot of them had different roles. This year we have to show the other guys what varsity baseball is all about. It’s all about showing confidence and going 100 percent.

“We’re trying to show the guys you can’t do this lollygag. You’ve always got to be on top of it and be awake in practice and when games come around.”

Others expected to complete the staff on the mound for Placer include sophomores Tyler Gumbs and Logan Markstein, as well as juniors Austin LeBleu and Troy Taylor.

Taylor, a Rocklin transfer, is the only southpaw the Hillmen will be starting this season. LeBleu could also be seeing a lot of time catching behind the plate.

Senior Isaac Brahce, a football player who hasn’t played baseball since he was a freshman, could also figure into the rotation. Luke Knoble, a pitcher/infielder, rounds out the sophomores on the team.

Todd Valliere, who batted .239 as a sophomore playing varsity ball, is expected to be the top junior.

“Coming back, he’s a good one,” Hilton said.

Placer’s returning senior class could have been bigger, but Eddie Vanderdoes won’t be joining the squad as he prepares for football at Notre Dame and Tyler Lipsmeyer has been dealing with knee injuries for the past year.

Placer has a grip of games schedule to be played Friday night under the lights at James Field.

“It’s the best game time ever,” Gregersen said. “It sucks playing at like 3:30 or 4. It’s hot, nobody comes to the game. When it’s under the lights, all the people come out. It’s Friday night, there’s no school, a lot of kids come out and support the team. The atmosphere is a lot more fun overall.”

PVL play, which consists of one home and road game against each league opponent, begins March 13 for Placer at Center.

“I always look forward to league, beating up on Colfax and those guys,” said Yunk, who’s eagerly been waiting to play on the diamond since his Hillmen football season ended in November. “Any of our rivals, Colfax or Bear River, those are the two main ones for me. I always expect Bear River to come back with a pretty good baseball team. And Colfax always does well, too. The PVL is tough. They’re all tough.”

Reach Matthew Kimel at Follow him on Twitter @matthewkimel