Coach has high expectations for Clayton Ridge/Central baseball

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Members of the Clayton Ridge/Central baseball team are (front, left to right) Caden Helle, Elliot Kelly, Kylar Millard, Kurt Ross; (middle) Ashton Thiese, Nate Meier, CJ Polkinghorn, Evan Schroeder, Keaton Reimer, Brayden Finley; (back) head coach Zach Mueller, William Spielbauer, Brandon Thiese, Hazen Loan, Caleb Helle, Dylan Ludovissy, Sean Wilwert, Drake Ostrander and assistant coach Kole Brandel.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

 

2021 represents the return of Clayton Ridge/Central baseball in something resembling a normal season, and after 13 years of coaching and serving as the program’s head coach since 2011, Zach Mueller brings a his love for the game to a fresh start. 

 

It’s a new beginning of coaching decisions, processing strategy and developing players into not just athletes, but high caliber young men, by utilizing the play calls and methods of one of Mueller’s role models and also his high school baseball coach, Mark Wiley, who is currently Central’s girls basketball and softball coach. This new beginning is a chance to improve upon a disappointing 4-15 season a year ago. And, if last year taught Mueller anything, it’s that pitching is a defining factor between winning and losing. 

 

With that concern in mind, the team “attacked the pitching issues head-on,” Mueller said. This attack included averaging 20 players in the gym every week during the preseason throwing program, which focused on pitch location mechanics and simulated at-bats. 

 

But even with that, Mueller admitted pitching will remain a concern until the staff can prove otherwise.

 

“Our pitchers have worked hard at it, but we’ll have to make the transition into live game action before we can say that it’s improved for sure,” he said. 

 

Another issue that contributed to the team’s record was the third base position. This is where Evan Schroeder comes into play, after stepping up last season.

 

According to Mueller, Schroeder has looked great during the first few weeks of practice. Behind Schroeder, and adding depth at the position, is Dylan Ludovissy, who has worked on the fundamentals required to play the hot corner. 

 

With a third base plan in place, Mueller expects the “defense to take a big step in the right direction.”

 

The offense has similar expectations, with senior Hazen Loan, and juniors Drake Ostrander, Caleb Helle and Brandon Thiese all returning. Although the team lost catcher Oakley Harbaugh, who transferred, his replacement, junior William Spielbauer, has worked hard during the offseason to round into form. 

 

With a team largely composed of juniors and seniors, Mueller has elected to give the offense the “green light” when it comes to stealing bases and putting pressure on the defense.

 

After training to improve pitching and defense, while having a bevy of upperclassmen in the lineup, it all culminates into what Mueller described as “very high expectations” for the upcoming season. 

 

For Mueller, beyond wining and losing, growth, especially of the players, is what brings him back every summer. 

 

“We often start with lanky and shy eighth graders, but by the end of their careers, we have grown men that are confident, communicate well and compete at high levels,” Mueller said. 

 

It’s about teaching the athletes more than pitch and catch, but a multitude of life lessons with the intent of having every player leave the program with the ability to work hard toward reaching goals, communicate well with others and persevere through adversity.

 

But with that enjoyment comes challenges. For Mueller, that begins with the play calling and decision making. As a result, he leans heavily on the opinions of assistant coaches Kole Brandel and Tony Smith. 

 

Another challenge is COVID-19 and the importance of player health. This has prompted coaches to encourage players to stay home if they’re not feeling well and to make improved choices to avoid missing games due to quarantine or other reasons. 

 

Probably one of the biggest challenges for the combined team, according to Mueller, is the constant rumor about Central or Clayton Ridge ending the sharing agreement. Though the rumblings are typically from people on the outside, they still add a level of pressure to perform and give credibility to the 11-year-old agreement that found community support difficult to come by in the early years. While Mueller suggested this has improved greatly over the years, as the players mesh and become friends, the continued rumblings can take the shine off the “great things the combined program has accomplished.” 

 

“We stress the importance of being one team and look forward to a strong Clayton Ridge/Central future,” Mueller said. 

 

As the season gets under way, Mueller also stressed the importance of community and supporting summer sports. 

 

“To the team, I would say let’s get after it and show everyone what we’ve been working so hard on. To the students and community, I would say come on out and support us. Summer sports don’t always get the attention they deserve, but our players are definitely fun to watch and do a great job of representing both schools with class,” he said. 

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