In one week, the injury bug has taken a tremendous bite out of the top-tier baseball stars in the talent-rich Hoosier Hills Conference.
Jeffersonville, ranked No. 2 in Class 4-A, lost senior catcher Isaac Crafton for the season. New Albany, ranked No. 8, lost ace pitcher Josh Rogers, a senior and a University of Louisville recruit.
Both required Tommy John surgery after tearing ligaments in their throwing elbows.
In addition, Floyd Central senior pitcher Cody Sunderhaus is out with a broken hand and New Albany three-year starter Zach Worrall is gone until mid-May with torn ligaments in his wrist.
Instead of the strike zone, the conference has entered a hospital zone. The most valuable person with those programs will be the team trainer.
The season-ending blows to Crafton and Rogers were the biggest.
Crafton, a Liberty University recruit, hit .575 with six home runs, 24 RBIs and a .988 slugging percentage last season as the Red Devils won the HHC tournament and the 4-A sectional title.
Rogers, a left-hander, was 8-1 with a 0.77 ERA and 97 strikeouts last year, and he was tied for the school record in career wins with 24.
Both were preseason All-State selections.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” first-year Jeffersonville coach Derek Ellis said. “You just don’t replace those kinds of guys. As painful as it is for us as coaches to lose those guys, we feel bad for them to lose their senior year.”
The only silver lining was the timing. Rogers and Crafton both face a significant recovery process but are expected to return to the game in college. Meanwhile, their high school teams have time to adjust and groom replacements before the HHC tournament (May 6-10) and the 4-A sectional at Bedford.
“You always have to have a Plan B in the background, even though you hope you don’t have to use it,” New Albany coach Chris McIntyre said. “Fortunately, or unfortunately, it happened at the beginning of the season, and it gives you time to get guys ready and experiment a little more, find out who the best players are to fill in the spots. If these happened on May 15, you’re just flying by the seat of your pants.”
Both teams are searching for their new identity. Jeffersonville is 3-3 while New Albany is 6-2.
Floyd Central, meanwhile, has stepped into the void. The Highlanders are 9-0, with wins already posted over Jeffersonville and New Albany. Even with Sunderhaus sidelined, the Highlanders have relied on their other five seniors (second baseman Jacob Snodgrass, shortstop Connor Curry, outfielder Derek DeSpain, outfielder Kyle Neafus and pitcher Kyle Sipes) during their hot streak.
“That’s a key to our start,” Floyd Central coach Casey LaDuke said. “Those six have started since they were sophomores. We have that leadership and experience.”
Floyd Central is poised, once the new Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association poll comes out, to catapult into the rankings.
Ellis and McIntyre are counting on that road to the state tournament being long enough for a quick shuffling of the lineup and a fast recovery from the emotional shock of losing a star off the roster. The Red Devils still have available talent in junior shortstop Drew Ellis (committed to Louisville) and pitcher Trent Astle (Xavier). The Bulldogs will be back to their new version of full strength by then.
“You’re always worried when your pitchers get hurt, more than anything,” McIntyre said. “It moves everybody up into a position they might not be ready for. They might have to pitch in games they wouldn’t normally be exposed to. But in the long run it probably helps those kids.”
Ellis said: “It’s the old cliché, the next man up. You have to find out who will step up and jump in that spot. We’ll regroup.”