A winning high school baseball program demands patience, dedication and, some years, maintenance.
The 2014 season could be one of maintenance for head coach Mike Darnell and his Bishop England Battling Bishops. Gone is the core that led the Bishops within a game of the Class AA state title last year. Eight upperclassmen return and just a handful have starting experience, none of which is from the mound.
“The whole thing is actually pretty good because you go into it knowing you have to coach your tail off,” Darnell said. “Last year, we were inexperienced and old, but this year we’re inexperienced and young. Sometimes that’s the better situation to have. There could be some growing pains, but we’re still building from the bottom up.”
In the senior class, Griffin Herbert returns as last year’s starting first baseman. Reed Fosberry took over starting at third base late last season and Chandler Sambets saw time at catcher. Utility player Harrison Boals returns as the Bishops’ most productive hitter and has the ability to fill several positions. Herbert, Fosberry and Boals could all be looked to for innings on the mound.
Junior Jonathan Browning returns in centerfield and is one of the Bishops’ most-coveted college prospects. He’ll lead off, has good speed and could see time on the mound as a lefty.
“Harrison is going to be counted on to do a lot,” Darnell said. “It’s a huge transition from being kind of a surprise as a junior to being counted on as a senior. Jonathan has a really high upside. I think last year really helped him. He’s much more mature just in how he carries himself and hopefully that will equate to even more success on the field.”
Junior Ryan McManus is the early leader on the mound. The right-hander showed capable on the junior varsity last season and was called up for the playoffs where he provided good innings. Right-handed junior Jackson Riley has a good arm but struggled with injuries last season. Edward Bolchoz, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound sophomore lefty, and Gunner Finneseth, a lefty transfer, could also see innings.
Eighth-graders Will Bashton and John Michael are two of the most talented future prospects Bishop England has in the program. Bashton led the JV pitching staff last season while also playing shortstop. Michael is a stocky catcher and outfielder who swings the bat well. Darnell says his seniors and juniors could be key to this year’s team, not only on the field, but in mentoring the younger players to prepare them for the years to come.
“We’re always building and we’re not going to sacrifice the good of the program to try and chase a few extra wins this season,” Darnell said. “We’re headed in the right direction as a program. We have some young kids who really want to be good and are going to fight it out. I think we have some good upperclassmen who will help them along. The ones who are willing to work their butts off are the ones who are going to play.”
The Bishops enter the season ranked No. 10 in Class AA by Diamond Prospects but appear at No. 1 in the S.C. Baseball Coaches Association preseason poll. Diamond Prospects picked the Bishops to finish second in Region V behind Woodland, who defeated Bishop England for the region title last year.
“We don’t go into any season setting our expectations by wins and loses,” Darnell said. “It may sound like coach-speak, but we’re really trying to make them better men. Our expectations as a coaching staff are to outwork everybody every day.”
Former Bishop returns home
A familiar face roams the field at practice this season, donning the same green cap he wore while building a legacy at Bishop England.
He’s fit in seamlessly with the players and coaching staff and seems right at home on the Bishops’ diamond because for Reese Havens this is home.
Havens was drafted by the Colorado Rockies out of Bishop England as a high school All-American in 2005. He opted instead to play for the University of South Carolina where he boosted his draft stock as a Collegiate Baseball All-American and became the No. 22 overall pick by the New York Mets in the 2008 Major League Baseball draft. After six years in the minors, Havens retired from baseball in January and has joined Darnell’s staff as a volunteer coach with the Bishops this season.
“I want to help these guys on and off the field as much as I can,” he said. “This program had a huge impact on me. I’ve been through it, I know the tradition, the way things run. I just want to help these guys get better in whatever way possible.”
Havens says he’s not sure if he’ll pursue coaching past this season. He plans on returning to USC to finish his degree, but past that, he’s still figuring out his future. Whatever he ends up deciding, Darnell says he’s happy to have Havens back, involved with the program and helping this year.
“His role is to do whatever he wants to do,” Darnell said. “This is as much, if not more, for him than for us. It’s something that’s perfect for him right now. But just having him out here changes the mentality for our players. They see a guy who’s from here and went on to play at a very high level and I think that makes them feel a little bit more pride in the program and that’s the best thing that could happen for us.”
Havens hit over .500 with nearly 50 RBIs his senior season at Bishop England. Besides what he obviously adds to the skill development of the Bishops, he’s a big proponent of player development and off-field preparation. Darnell’s belief of building a program throughout the ranks with players willing to help the next group is something Havens shares because it’s something he’s been through at every level.
“The younger guys trying out are going to look up to the seniors and I think it’s important everywhere you go,” he said. “It doesn’t change. When I was a freshman at Carolina, I looked up to the older guys on the team. That’s how you learn how this game works. Same thing with pro ball. I think you see some of that going on here, so that’s good.
“My goal is to motivate these guys to be better tomorrow than they were today. However that may be. We want to have a plan put together, a goal to get better every day. That’s really what I’m here for and I’m happy I’m able to do it.”