Lewis County baseball has been heading downhill since its last 63rd District title in 2012.
Larry Riley is hoping to end that trend.
After back-to-back losing seasons and dwindling participation, Riley has returned to try to change the culture around the Lions’ program.
“Team participation and hustle are the big things and buying into a new product,” said Riley. “It’s all about hustle and helping your teammate out, doing simple things to win.”
Riley coached Lewis County from 1989-2000, winning 188 games and claiming three district titles during that stretch. He now returns as the Lions’ third coach in three years. Part of his decision to return came after getting interest from administrators and parents, he says.
But perhaps the biggest reason for his return came from a talk with a former player: Keith Prater.
After graduating from Lewis County, Prater returned to coach the middle school team before taking over the high school program in 2012. That season the Lions went 25-6 and won the 63rd District title. The next year Lewis County won a school-record 27 games and finished with the best record in the 16th Region.
Prater left and became an assistant at Rowan County the following year, before taking over the head coaching position at the Morehead school in 2016. The Vikings went 26-11 and won the 61st District in his first season in charge and followed it with a 16th Region title last season.
Days before his team was set to play Muhlenberg County in their opening game of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament, Prater was diagnosed with leukemia. The team lost a nine inning game, 4-3, on June 8, and on July 19, Prater passed away.
But before he did, he spoke with his former coach.
“Right before he passed – he’s the one that talked me into it. I’ve still got the text on my phone he sent me,” said Riley. “That was the final decision to get me to do it.”
Prater had a 52-17 record in two seasons at Lewis County, but the Lions have gone just 49-74 in four seasons from 2014-2017.
This season has already been looking up. Lewis County is up to 27 players, enough for varsity and junior varsity, and for the second straight year the team opened up the season with a win. Last year’s team didn’t consist of a senior and the Lions have only four on this season’s roster.
“I’ve really got a junior roster right now. I’ve got three or four seniors, but we’re mostly a sophomore, junior oriented team,” said Riley. “With the four seniors, it helped that the kids played last year. It makes a big difference, especially with leadership. Our juniors and seniors are both leaders on the team.”
The season-opening win came at Bath County in four innings, 5-3. It was a junior leading the charge on the mound with Seth Wright throwing four innings, allowing two hits and walking two while striking out nine and not allowing an earned run, according to statistics submitted to MaxPreps.com. Mark Sparks pitched 1.2 innings, allowing two hits and one earned run while striking out three and walking one. Sam O’Keefe retired the only batter he faced.
Garrett Applegate is expected to be another of the Lions’ top pitchers this spring after making seven appearances last season, according to statistics on MaxPreps.com Austin Collins, Bryce Wallingford, Marty Simonnetti, Tate Willis, David Grayson and Andrew Sweet all saw action on the mound last season.
Simonnetti went 1-for-2 in the opener with two RBIs after being moved to ninth in the order this season.
“He’s like another leadoff batter,” said Riley. “He has speed and can put the ball in play.”
Wallingford, the team’s shortstop, is expected to be at the top of the order, while O’Keefe is second, Applegate is third and Wright is batting cleanup, according to Riley.
Sparks recorded two hits and an RBI Monday. Applegate and O’Keefe each added a couple of hits, while Wright recorded a double and Wallingford and Wyatt Yates each had a single.
While collecting a win to open the season, they’ll have a tough battle to reclaim the district crown. The Lions went 1-6 in 63rd District games last season and Greenup County, Raceland and Russell all return talent this season.
Raceland went 17-16 last year, but knocked off Greenup County, 8-2, in the district semifinals, ending the Musketeers four-year run of championships. Hunter Lacks returns for his junior season, after finishing 21st in the state as a sophomore with a .480 batting average and seventh in the state in slugging percentage. Of his 24 hits last year, eight were doubles, two were triples and three were home runs, according to statistics submitted to the KHSAA.
Greenup County claimed nine of the 10 63rd District titles from 2007-2016, before being taken out by the Rams last season. The most notable return for the Musketeers this season is senior shortstop Gage Hughes. The University of Cincinnati signee was 13th in the state in batting average (.493), eighth in slugging percentage (.893), 22nd in RBIs (41) and 12th in on base percentage (.610). Kyle Gammon also returns after finishing 21st in the state in runs scored last year with 44.
Russell also returns talent and is looking to claim back-to-back district titles. They’ll return Jaeden Layne, who struck out 101 of the 249 batters he faced last season, according to statistics submitted to the KHSAA.
“They’re three powerhouses the in district. Greenup County has been exceptional – they have been for years and I’ve respected how they’ve gone about it. Raceland and Russell are two really good programs,” said Riley. “The last time we won the district my son [Kasey Riley] was a senior, so we’ve got a lot of ground to catch up to compete with those three teams.”
Lewis County is scheduled to play Raceland on back-to-back days on April 16 and 17, before continuing the district slate on April 23 and 24 against Russell. The Lions are scheduled to close regular season district play with games against Greenup County on April 30 and May 1.