For all the hours Trent Mongero has spent in a dugout over the years, even the North Hall coach is occasionally thrown a curveball he hasn’t seen before.
The 2013 season was a historic one for Mongero and the Trojans, who advanced past the second round of the state playoffs for the first time in school history and went on to finish runner-up in Class AAA with a program-record 32 wins.
It would have been understandable if the team had settled into a rebuilding year after losing five senior starters from last year’s squad, including all three starting pitchers.
Instead, North Hall (5-4, 3-1 Region 7-AAA) has brushed off some early struggles to win three of its last four games during a season that has already offered up a less-than-typical set of hurdles.
“It’s one of the more challenging coaching years, but in a good way,” said Mongero, who has been involved with high school baseball for 23 years.
“Our staff knew coming into this season that we had to really coach this team up and help them grow, that’s our responsibility as coaches.”
There may be no better example of the type of challenges Mongero has experienced this season than the Trojans’ rebuilt pitching rotation.
Colton Duttweiler, Adam Kelly and Preston Graham, The Times’ 2013 Pitcher of the Year, posted numbers that could have rivaled any rotation across the state last season as seniors, with all three starters registering an earned run average below 1.50.
This year, Corbin Lewallen came into the season as the team’s projected No. 1 starting pitcher, and as the only member of the rotation with varsity innings under his belt. The junior left-hander suffered an injury in the team’s non-region opener and has been sidelined since, forcing the remainder of the Trojans’ pitching staff to take on even bigger, more unexpected roles.
Mongero had little choice but to hand Friday’s start against West Hall to a pitcher who had played exactly one inning of organized baseball since middle school — senior Brandon DeLong.
“We were able to get Brandon in against Fannin (last) Thursday night for one inning, and he seemed to really battle through his nerves and did a very good job, which gave us the confidence to give him the nod on Friday versus West Hall,” Mongero said.
“He came through and pitched very well for us. This is really just a remarkable feat for this young man. The chances of a player not playing since the seventh grade and making the varsity squad as a senior is really small.”
Delong allowed two runs in 4 2/3 innings against West Hall to earn the win on the mound in the Trojans’ 10-2 victory.
Mongero hopes to get Lewallen back within a week to 10 days, allowing the other pitchers to slide back one spot in the rotation. However, even if the team gets back to full strength, the coach realizes that the team will need to give its younger hurlers more support this season.
“We just can’t count on one of our pitchers like a Preston Graham to basically hold a team to zero or one run while we win a ball game,” Mongero said. “We realize the ball is going to be put in play. We have to play good defense and get timely hitting.”
“Timely” may be the key word, because the Trojans aren’t an imposing, power-hitting team. Andrew Smith had North Hall’s first home run this season in Wednesday’s game.
The team does, however, have plenty of speed at the top of the order in Smith and McCoy Savage, two of only three seniors on the roster who have been in the program all four years of high school.
Smith, the teams’ leadoff hitter and starting shortstop, stole an area-leading 41 bases last season. He realizes that his ability to steal bases will be even more critical for the team’s run production this season.
“It’s big for us because we need to have runners in scoring position at all times,” Smith said. “Having that speed at the top of the lineup really helps our three, four and five hitters for us to be in scoring position when their time comes.”
With catcher Stephen Murray the only other experienced senior on the roster, the Trojans’ lineup consists of mostly underclassmen.
Mongero’s son, freshman Taber Mongero, is among that group as the team’s starting second baseman. It’s only the second time Trent Mongero has coached his son since he was 8-years old.
“It’s a unique challenge. He’s asked to do as much (as anyone else), and some people would probably say I ask him to do more than everybody else, because I never want anyone to think he’s getting anything extra just because I’m his father,” Trent Mongero said. “He’s embraced that.
“Again, this is (an area) where senior leadership took place. The seniors assured me that they had a lot of confidence in Taber to fulfill that role that he’s in now.”
The Trojans will likely need an entire roster of players fulfilling their roles to the fullest if they hope to defend their Region 7-AAA title against teams like top-ranked Buford and White County, both of which are undefeated this season.
Even a playoff spot is less than a given this year against a field of contenders that includes a much-improved West Hall and Dawson County, which dealt the Trojans their first region loss, 2-1, Wednesday night.
“I really feel like there’s more parity now than in years past,” Mongero said. “There’s a lot of good coaches from top to bottom in our region, and they’re really starting to make an impact.
“Seems like almost every team has at least one (very good) starter, and of course the teams like Buford and White County have two or three or more. When you have that, you’re going to have close ball games.”
North Hall may not have the most talented arms in the region or the most dangerous bats, but Smith believes team chemistry will be key to the Trojans’ success in 2014.
He sees that connection gradually forming within the North Hall dugout — a process that takes time.
“We’re trying to succeed just as much as (the seniors last year), but we’ve had a totally different year, honestly, from the start,” Smith said. “It’s hard to lose five seniors and pick up where you left off, but I think we’ve done a great job.
“The team chemistry is getting better. It was really hard, though, at the beginning of the year, to bond because so many players haven’t been on the varsity level. But, you know, I think we’re getting there, and we’re right where we want to be.”