The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

April 19, 2013

Scott Dudinskie's column on high school baseball: Eagles' senior is missed


Daily Item

---- — Here's an often overlooked truth about high school athletics: There are only so many athletes walking the halls of a given school.

The smaller the school -- obviously -- the fewer athletes.

True game-changers, such as Erik Smeltz, are rarer still.

When a player of that caliber is lost to injury, it can be like a loose thread of a sweater -- if it's attached to a bullet train.

That's how quickly things can unravel for a team.

Line Mountain is -- by no means -- circling the drain after losing its star senior outfielder. That's very much a testament to coach Jon Raker and the Eagles.

"You take the best hitter on your team out of the heart of your lineup, it makes a difference," said Raker, forcing a chuckle to cut through the pall.

"You take Ryan Howard out of the Phillies' lineup last year and they have trouble scoring runs."

The Eagles are 3-3 (overall and league) after consecutive losses to two of the Tri-Valley League's early contenders, Upper Dauphin and East Juniata.

At the beginning of the week, though, Line Mountain was among the contenders, one of five teams with one TVL loss (including Halifax and Newport).

So how bad can it be without Smeltz? Well, for that it helps to know what's missing.

As a junior last season, Smeltz led the Eagles with a .453 average to go with 11 RBIs and 23 runs scored. He had a .545 on-base percentage and slugged at a .594 clip (four doubles, triple, home run). He also stole 14 bases.

How much do you think Raker would have liked to see Smeltz stride to the plate in the second inning Tuesday, when the Eagles had two on with two outs and the clean-up spot due? It was already a four-run inning, good enough to tie Upper Dauphin, but the rally ended there.

In fact, the clean-up spot came up with Eagles on base in the fourth and sixth innings, as well, and little came of it. Line Mountain lost, 11-8, having two shots with the tying run at the plate in the last of the seventh.

Now multiply similar opportunities, at least a couple per game, over a 20-game season.

"In some of those spots, if he's there, maybe makes a difference. Maybe it doesn't," said Raker. "We have to approach it as though ... I mean, he's not here and we can't worry about him not being here."

Smeltz, an all-state tight end, injured his shoulder during football season and aggravated the injury in district wrestling. He had surgery just prior to baseball season.

Did we mention he was the Eagles' top pitcher, averaging right around a strikeout per inning last season?

"For him, as a senior, it's certainly disappointing for him not to be able to play his senior year," said Raker, who returned to the dugout following a two-year hiatus. He coached the Eagles from 2004-10.

Right about now, someone is thinking that every team has to deal with injuries and other forms of adversity. "Aren't there 15-odd kids on a team?"

That's true, but even if you disregard Smeltz's impact last season, it's difficult to look past the team's 10th best player suddenly becoming a starter.

A couple years ago, The Daily Item chose Danville senior Zach Russell as its Preseason Player of the Year. He injured his labrum in his second start and was lost for the season. The Ironmen finished the season a win shy of the Class AA state championship game.

No one's predicting the same success for Line Mountain. However, the Eagles appear to have the goods to remain in the TVL discussion and possibly achieve the .500 record needed to qualify in District 4.

"I think we're right there," said Raker. "I'm happy with the guys that we have in there that have stepped up. They have been putting the ball in play and doing a decent job.

FROM THE ASHES: It's been a tough stretch for the proud Lewisburg baseball program.

The Green Dragons haven't qualified for the postseason since winning the 2000 District 4-AA title. In fact, it would take the total wins from the previous three seasons to amass the 10 typically needed to make the district playoffs.

With three wins in their first six games, the Dragons are relevant again. Credit first-year coach Kevin Kline, an alum and former assistant, but also a group of players that's played doormat long enough.

"They're hungry. They want to win (and) they know they have the talent to do it. It's the focus and little things we've got to iron out," Kline said after Thursday's particularly tough 3-2 loss at Mifflinburg. "They pay attention to details. We go over a lot of little things in practice and they're starting to pick it up. I think more wins will start coming."

The Dragons raised eyebrows with an early win over Montgomery, the Class A state runner-up last season, then posted a lopsided win over a good Warrior Run team less than a week later.

There's a lot of season to play, enough to end that postseason drought with continued progress and timely hit or two.

"If we can keep improving our pitching and defense," said Kline, "I think we're going to be in a lot of games and surprise a lot of people."

"They're a good team," said Mifflinburg coach Tom Church. "They're like us last year. They're not getting the breaks to win right now, but they will."

n Scott Dudinskie covers high school baseball for The Daily Item. Email comments to sdudinskie@dailyitem.com.