Natural born hitters:

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 11, 2002

Pike Lib batters have been busy

collecting home runs off opposing team’s pitching this season


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Sports Editor

As catcher for the Pike Liberal Arts School baseball team, junior Wes Johnson has an eye for pitches.

He speaks like a young man who has a deep knowledge, respect, and love for the game, confident in his ability behind the plate, as well as in the batter’s box. Johnson has all the answers to all of the questions.

Such as:

What pitches does he like to take a swing at?

"I try to hit the fastball," he said. "Because you know that’s what they’re going to throw 90 to 95 percent of the time, unless they have a good curve. When you do get what you want, you have to make sure you jump on it."

What’s the toughest thing about facing Lee-Scott pitcher and Alabama-signee Allen Ponder?

"His reputation," Johnson said.

And what’s it really feel like to hit a home run?

"It feels like you’re on top of the world," he said with a smile. "Like it can’t get any better. Oh man, you don’t even feel the bat hit the ball. It’s like swinging at air, swinging at air."

Johnson and his Pike Lib teammates have combined to hit 15 home runs this season, getting contributions from the top of the lineup to the bottom. Lead-off batter Luke Sanders has hit two. His brother, Layton, is second on the team with three homers to his credit. Goshen’s Brandon Hooks is tops on the squad, belting four this season.

So what’s the secret to providing instant offense at the plate?

"Watching the ball and making contact…watching the fast ball and adjusting on the curves," said Hooks, who also pitches. "Mainly, Coach (Butch) Austin wants me to just hit the ball. He’d rather me fly out then strike out."

Austin has called this squad, "one of the hardest hitting teams" he’s ever had at Pike Lib.

Luke Sanders feels that’s a pretty safe assumption.

"We’re a good hitting team, one through nine," he said. "I don’t know if there’s any other team in the AISA that can hit the ball better then us, if we hit like we’re supposed to."

Second baseman Drew Kilpatrick agrees.

"I think we’ve improved on our fundamentals, with our stances and our swings," he said. "We’ve been hitting the ball more solid and picking it up pretty much anywhere we’ve played. I basically try to hit a ball from the middle to the short side of the field. If I hit it solid, it’ll happen most of the time."

Kilpatrick has a penchant for delivering a hit when the Patriots have runners in scoring position, yet bats at the bottom of the order along with Druid Conrad, Bill Hughes and Brady Dunn. He hit his lone homer during the Patriots’ first game against Dixie in Louisville. Before Kilpatrick’s at-bat, the Sanders’ brothers, Johnson and senior Scott Kirby combined to knock four home runs, all in one inning of play.

"When I get up there I’m expecting the first pitch to be a strike, no matter what," said Kirby. "Because in high school, pitchers really don’t have a lot of confidence in their stuff and are just trying to get the ball across the plate."

Unless, Kirby said, it’s someone like

"Allen Ponder."

At some point this season, Pike, which is 12-4 overall and 2-3 in region play, will have to solve that ‘Ponder-Problem.’ The state’s top hurler and probable 2002 Major League draftee shut down the Patriots in the first game of a doubleheader last week as the Warriors swept the series 10-0 and 5-4.

Johnson wasn’t joking when he said the 6-foot-4, 220 pound senior’s reputation was the toughest thing an opposing team had to deal with.

"It’s just that you see a guy who’s signed a Division I-A scholarship, will probably be drafted, and it kind of scares you," he said. "But the thing about him, is that he can put it where he wants it. He’s got a bunch of pitches he can us…fastball, curveball, change-up, slider. There’s nobody else we really face that throws that many pitches that hard and hits the spots like he does. It’s different not facing the same kind of pitching all the time."

But not that Ponder is ‘Superman’ in a Lee-Scott jersey either.

"He isn’t un-hitable," said Layton Sanders. "We got three good hits off him. But he’s got that 90-mile per hour fastball, a good curve, and you just can’t expect to get a hit every time. He’s good."

"He’s just big," said Hughes. "He didn’t throw but about 89 (MPH) the first time we faced him, but he had that slow curve ball and slider."

Austin allows his hitters to have freedom at the plate and Sanders feels that’s one of the reasons the Patriots have excelled on offense this year.

"He understands and knows what pitches we like to hit. He’ll give us the green light a lot, because sometimes you just have take the swing," Sanders said.

"Unless it’s 3-0 or something, we usually swing at what we want to," said Conrad. "I’m always looking for a fastball, because I can’t hit a curve. Somebody throws me a curve and I miss everything."

The 1996 PLAS baseball team knocked a school-record 30 home runs with David Nelson’s 11 leading the way. That record still looks safe with only 10 regular season games remaining on this year’s Patriots’ schedule.

That’s fine with Johnson.

He’d rather be remembered for something else that team accomplished. A 20-plus win season as well as the first of two consecutive trips to the AISA AAA Final Four.

"I’m concentrating on the playoffs," he said. "It would be nice to say your team led the school in homeruns, but I’d rather be in the playoffs."