Sports

SPRING SPORTS PREVIEW | New coach Jeff Hodson sets new tone for sluggers

Falcon senior outfielder Montana Johnson hopes to hit the long ball this season to compliment first-year head coach Jeff Hodson’s strategy.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Falcon senior outfielder Montana Johnson hopes to hit the long ball this season to compliment first-year head coach Jeff Hodson’s strategy.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

LANGLEY — A baseball team loaded with seniors may seem like a conference favorite.

The South Whidbey squad certainly thinks so.

“We are capable of as much as we’re willing to work for,” said senior Cameron Wildes.

First, the Falcons will have to turn around from a three-win season last year. One change was already made — a new head coach. After a few seasons as the junior varsity coach, Jeff Hodson was promoted to lead the varsity team. The former college baseball player said he wanted to spark the love of the game in the Falcons, and use the sport as a vehicle to teach life lessons.

“I love the game of baseball, but it’s more than that to me,” Hodson said. “I see my role more as helping the kids learn life lessons. I’m a big ‘baseball as life’ kind of guy.”

A life lesson about losing wasn’t lost on the returning players. Last year’s squad finished last in the Cascade Conference with a 3-15 record (their first victory was almost a month into the season). Hodson was hired late last year. He replaced longtime coach Dave Guetlin, who resigned last spring. Hodson applied as soon as he knew it would work with his work schedule that takes him to Boston and Chicago.

“I felt there was an opportunity to get the program to a point where it thrives,” Hodson said.

“I want to make the high school program the premier baseball club on the South End.”

South Whidbey Athletic Director Scott Mauk said the reason for the early, off-season hiring was to spark interest and give players someone to rally around.

It worked.

Players attended the open gym workouts regularly. A handful of first-time seniors tried out for the team, and the program grew to almost 30 players.

“We have been practicing during the preseason more than we ever have before,” said Wildes, who was one of the team’s star pitchers last year.

To compete in the conference and earn a district berth, the Falcons will likely need to beat Archbishop Murphy and Cedarcrest. Players said the atmosphere Hodson has created can get them there.

“He has brought a new freshness,” Wildes said. “All the kids came in hearing negative things, and they weren’t all true, and since Jeff has been here he’s been everybody’s friend. He does what he needs to do as far as being strict and rough, but he also cares about the team.”

The Falcons will need to generate runs in addition to a fun environment. During the previous season, South Whidbey averaged 3.2 runs per game, and only outscored its average five times. Pitching and defense has to improve for the Falcons to have a chance, too. The opposing teams averaged 9.3 runs per game against South Whidbey, and scored 10 runs or more in eight games.

The season will start against the conference’s top teams in Cedarcrest, Lakewood and Archbishop Murphy. How South Whidbey fares in those first few series will say a lot about how it could finish.

“If we can start out strong — we play the three most competitive teams right off the bat — I have no doubt we have playoff potential,” Wildes said.

CJ Sutfin

Bolstered by a few freshmen and sophomores, the varsity squad will rely heavily on a mixed rotation on the mound. Hodson will possibly use a dozen or so pitchers this year, whereas last year a handful shouldered the workload. Wildes, who took private pitching and hitting lessons in the offseason, said the lightened load should help him, though he enjoys the limelight of ringing up strikeouts.

“About everybody is going to be pitching this year,” Wildes said. “I always kind of liked being the center of attention. I’m loud, I’m there.”

His go-to guy will be junior catcher Aaron Curfman, a three-year varsity starter. He’ll call the pitches and defend home plate. He has also proven to be one of the team’s more vocal leaders during the preseason. Curfman praised the team’s willingness to learn from Hodson and remember its situational plays (runners on first and third with one out, and the ball is hit to right field, for example).

“Our strongest point is our mental capability. We’re able to understand the game a lot more,” Curfman said.

“We have a really good group of freshmen and sophomores. We are sharpening our minds as a team. In the past there’s been more individualism. This year because we’re on the same page, we want to strive toward the same goal.”

South Whidbey swings into the season at noon Saturday against Friday Harbor.

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