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Leopards’ sure thing

Senior ace pitches Liberty past WGH

Staff photo / Joe Simon Liberty senior Dwight Parker pitches on Saturday at Warren G. Harding where he threw a four-hit shutout with 15 strikeouts.

WARREN — Warren G. Harding and Liberty weren’t real sure what they were going to get from their baseball teams when they took the field for a regular-season game for the first time in two years.

Liberty’s Tom Otto brought just 13 kids to the game as the Leopards are battling a numbers game to start the year. The Raiders’ Andrew Burnett had just two returning lettermen and was fielding a team that was made up largely of underclassmen.

There was one thing Otto was sure about: starting pitcher Dwight Parker. And he was the difference.

The senior fired a four-hit shutout, striking out 15 as the Leopards held on for a 1-0 victory at Volunteer Field on Saturday in Warren.

“I thought the key for us was that Dwight was out there,” Otto said. “He was pounding the zone. He had 15 strikeouts, threw a complete game, didn’t walk anybody, and he did that under 90 pitches. So, for us to do that and have that performance, when you’re out there defensively, and you’re not walking anybody, the guy’s pounding the zone and throwing strikes, you have a little hop in your step. You want to make that play out there for that guy who’s throwing the ball like he did.”

The Leopards acted like it, too.

They didn’t commit an error and made a couple big plays on defense to preserve the shutout. In the fourth inning, Greg Jones made a lunging catch for the third out of the inning when Harding had a man on base. Only a freshman, Jones’s play added more life to an already excited Liberty dugout. However, the Raiders hung tough. Their pitching was nearly as good, with starter Elijah Taylor allowing just one run over 3 2/3 innings before giving way to Justin Abel, who pitched 3 1/3 shutout innings.

“We know what he’s going to do every time he comes out,” said Burnett of Taylor, a left-hander who was Harding’s starting quarterback the last three seasons. “He’s going to throw strikes, he’s going to challenge guys — that’s what he does. He’s a senior. He’s a leader on this team. That’s what we expect every time he comes out. Justin Abel came in and did a nice job the rest of the game. He got guys out. He threw a lot of strikes, and I think we only had two walks. They had (none). A lot of these guys have been off for a year, so it takes the bats a little while to get going.

“Their pitcher pitched really well. We pitched well. That’s just how baseball goes sometimes.”

The only run of the game came in the first inning, and it was Parker who helped make it happen.

He doubled down the right-field line, advanced to third on a grounder to second base and Tony Patrone hit a single to left-center field to bring him home. Parker, a Westminster commit, took over on the hill after that.

He struck out eight of the last nine batters and threw just 87 pitches. He was consistently nailing the outside corner with his fastball and mixed in occasional off-speed pitches to keep the Raiders guessing.

“It always helps when it’s a warm day,” he said with a grin. “I felt good coming out. Throwing strikes was the key to winning this game. (The good defense) pushes me to throw strikes more. It feels amazing when kids are behind me making plays, and I’m also out there doing my thing.”

It was a nice start for a Liberty team that has some talent but barely enough kids to field a team. Junior outfielder Donte Venters was injured during the preseason and will miss the rest of the year, and he was a big loss as the Leopards have a young outfield. While the roster may be small, Liberty has senior leadership in Parker and fellow pitcher/shortstop Trevor Strohmeyer, among others.

“It starts with not only our captains being seniors but also the senior leadership out of the other guys,” Otto said. “Billy Kocher is a four-year starter in the out field, three-year starter in center field. Nick Steeves has been a starter and Tony Patrone, they’ve been starters since they were sophomores. It’s easier when you go through that experience with a (veteran) group of kids.”

Harding is in a little different position.

They have two returning lettermen in Taylor and senior shortstop Brett Brown. DaShaun Gunther-Putnam is another senior starter in left field, and then there is a plethora of young talent — Brayden Schuller, a sophomore catcher; David Devlin, a junior center fielder; Abel, a junior second baseman/pitcher; Carson Peterson, a junior pitcher/first baseman; and freshmen Carter Knupp, Jake Daugherty and Jesse Chitwood.

Burnett understands there will be a learning curve after so many players missed out on valuable experience last year, but he likes the makeup of the group.

“We’re starting four freshmen, so we’re young,” he said. “There are a couple sophomores and juniors mixed in. Hopefully we can get the bats going. With pitching and defense, we’ll be fine. It’s just a matter of whether we can put some runs across. … We’ve got some good senior leadership. The two guys that lettered and have played, they’re going to carry us through some things, so it’s going to be good.”

Both teams were just happy to play a game.

Liberty travels to John F. Kennedy at 5 p.m. Monday, while Harding hosts Howland at the same time.

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