New year, same expectations for PBL baseball as it enters 2019 season

PAXTON -- According to its head coach, Brock Niebuhr, expectations have not changed for the Paxton-Buckley-Loda baseball team.
The Panthers enter the 2019 season as four-time defending Sangamon Valley Conference champions.
"Our expectations are the same year-in and year-out," Niebuhr said. "We expect to put a quality product on the field. We expect our kids to play hard and play the game the right way. If we can execute, and some guys can step into their role a little bit, I think we have a chance to be a solid team." 
Niebuhr is entering his second year as PBL's head coach.
"I always look forward to a new season," Niebuhr said. "We've got a great group of kids. They're working hard. They're battling through the weather and elements a little bit, but excited to get started."
The Panthers said goodbye to a senior class that included all-SVC first teamers Jaxson Coplea -- who batted .325 with 17 RBIs and 26 runs scored in 2018 -- and Ben McClure -- who batted .295 with three triples, nine doubles and 30 RBIs -- and second-teamer Keaton Krumwiede, who had a 3.91 ERA with 28 strikeouts on the mound while hitting .287 with 23 RBIs and 32 runs scored.
"Obviously, every year, you lose a group of seniors and wish you had one more year with them, but the guys we do have coming back, whether it'd be seniors returning or juniors who played a lot of innings for us last year as sophomores, they're all a year older and a year more experience," Niebuhr said. "We have high expectations for those guys."
Among PBL's senior class for the 2019 season is Ben Jarboe, who was also named to the all-SVC first team last year after hitting .398 with one home run, eight doubles, 24 RBIs and 22 runs scored at the plate. On the mound, Jarboe -- who, according to the PBL boys basketball senior-night program, plans to attend Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, where he will play basketball -- had a 3.4 ERA with a team-high 50 strikeouts.
Mason Ecker is entering his senior season after hitting .329 last year with 24 RBIs, 28 runs scored and 28 stolen bases. On the mound, Ecker had a 2.97 ERA with 33 strikeouts.
Keyn Humes, another senior, had a 0.00 ERA through 12 innings with 14 strikeouts while hitting .262 with nine RBIs and 22 runs scored.  
Junior Drake Schrodt was an all-SVC honorable mention last year after hitting .329 with 12 RBIs, 26 runs scored and 17 stolen bases. 
Dalton Busboom had a 3.32 ERA with a 4-2 record and 12 strikeouts as a sophomore last year. Trey VanWinkle, another junior, hit .300 with 10 RBIs and 17 runs scored last year.
"Until we really get out and see it, it's tough to project, but we're definitely excited for the guys that we have returning who have a lot of varsity experience," Niebuhr said. "We're going to kind of ride them a little bit, and hopefully they can carry us through a nice year."
The Panthers, as can be expected with the weather in Central Illinois, did not have a lot of preseason practice time outdoors, finally getting onto its home field for practice on Tuesday, March 12.
"It has been a tough start," Niebuhr said. "We've done the best we can with getting outside as much as we can, whether we find dry grass or parking lots, whatever the case my be. We're battling it. It's out of our control. The weather's going to break one of these days, and once it does, I feel like we're going to get into a lot of games in a short amount of time. We've just got to keep plugging away. It'll break for us soon."
The Panthers are scheduled to start their season at Hoopeston Area and Ridgeview on Thursday and Friday before hosting Prairie Central on Tuesday. After facing Tri-Valley on the road on Thursday, March 21, PBL is scheduled to host Ottawa Marquette, which finished fourth at the IHSA Class 1A state tournament last year, at 4:30 p.m. Friday, March 22.
The Panthers also added a Saturday triangular date with Tremont and Manteno on Saturday, April 13, at Kankakee Community College to their schedule.
"In general, our schedule has continued to get tougher and tougher," Niebuhr said.
The Panthers also have Illini Prairie Conference opponents Bloomington Central Catholic (10 a.m. doubleheader at home on Saturday, May 4), Tolono Unity (4:30 p.m. home game on Friday, May 3), St. Thomas More (April 25 game on the road), Rantoul (April 22 home game), St. Joseph-Ogden (April 12 game on the road and Monticello (April 1 home game) on their nonconference schedule.
"They've had a lot of recent success," Niebuhr said. "Those are going to be quality games."
On Saturday, March 30, PBL will make its SVC debut via an 11 a.m. doubleheader at Dwight. After games on the road and at home against Watseka on April 2 and 4, respectively, the Panthers will host Momence on April 9 before traveling to face Momence on April 11.
On April 16, PBL will host Cissna Park before traveling to face the same Timberwolves on April 18. The Panthers' SVC schedule continues with home and away games with Iroquois West on April 25 and 27, respectively.
The Panthers will conclude their SVC schedule with a game at Clifton Central -- against which PBL clinched last year's SVC title with an 8-7 victory after trailing 7-4 through six innings in a game played last May -- on May 7 and a home game against those same Comets on May 9.  
"Our conference is continuing to improve. I expect Clifton Central, which gave us everything we could ask for last year, to be better. Coach (Brian) Kohn does a nice job up there," Niebuhr said. "In general, I expect every team in our conference to be a little bit better than they were last year. We're going to prepare for a dogfight every day and know that we have to execute and get the job done."
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