The Robert E. Lee baseball program has a new leader.
But heâ€™s not new to the program â€” far from it.
Last season David Howard completed his 10th year as Lee varsity assistant/pitching coach. In all 10 of those seasons, the Red Raiders have reached the playoffs.
In fact, REL is enjoying an 11-year postseason streak which has featured three regional semifinal appearances and numerous district titles.
Howard begins his first year as head coach when Lee takes the field against Marshall Tuesday at Mike Carter Field.
Howard said he intends on continuing to do what he and the departed Mike Pirtle (Conroe Oak Ridge) have been doing for over a decade â€” winning.
â€śYou want to find a way to keep all of those positive things going (weâ€™ve had with Mike and I), but at the same time, put your own touch (on it),â€ť Howard said. â€śWe just ordered a new logo for the shirts to make it a little different, but as far as the baseball part of it goes, weâ€™re probably going to be pretty close to what we were.â€ť
Howardâ€™s love, admittedly, is with the pitching staff, but understands he will have to be more hands-on with other aspects of the team. Howard said his assistants are making that transition all the more comfortable.
â€śCoach Jason Kennedy is going to be able to help me with the pitching,â€ť Howard said. â€śJason pitched when he was here and he pitched for East Texas Baptist, so heâ€™s going to be huge in helping in that regard because I do have to step back from that a little bit.
â€śCoach Donnie Leach will help with base running and how we approach things at the plate with good at bats. I have (coaches) who can help me on both sides.â€ť
Howard assumes control of a team coming off an uncharacteristic 15-14 season in which it was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
The Red Raiders return seven field starters, led by first team All-District pitcher/infielder Zach Flanagan and first-team outfielder Trace Reed. Also back is sophomore pitcher Daniel Bogue, senior outfielder Blake Korthauer and senior infielder Blake Hamblett, who made second team all-district.
Rounding out the returners are senior infielders Chad Payne and Ross Himes, and senior outfielder Tanner Bandel, who also received all-district recognition as honorable mention.
â€śWe have a lot of experienced players back, and some of that experience was good and some of it was bad, but (itâ€™s a positive) that we have kids who were out there and under the lights,â€ť Howard said.
Howard added he also has the luxury of many players up from the junior varsity, which captured district title a year ago.
Breaking down the 2013 Red Raiders
Zach Flanagan provided solid, dependable starting pitching last year. He finished with a 7-2 record and 2.55 ERA, highlighted by two complete games in district play.
Howard believes Flanagan could even be more dominant in his senior season.
â€śI would say Flanagan will probably be classified as the No. 1,â€ť Howard said. â€śHeâ€™s a senior, who competes his tail off and has worked hard. He ate up a lot of innings last year â€¦ he pitched great for us.â€ť
The Red Raiders no longer have their No. 2 pitcher, Daniel Derfus, because of graduation. Lee will instead turn to a host of arms led by sophomore lefty Daniel Bogue. As a freshman primarily in a relief role, Bogue went 5-2 with a 3.23 ERA.
Senior J.D. Cobb made a splash last year by blanking Consolidated for five innings to give the Red Raiders a chance to come back against the eventual state finalists.
Howard said returning seniors Ross Himes, Blake Korthauer and Blake Hamblett will also be asked to take the ball on occasion.
â€śI have three kids â€“ Flanagan, Korthauer and Bogue â€“ who have pitched a lot of varsity innings and I have a lot of other arms that I feel (will contribute),â€ť Howard said.
The Red Raiders return three of four starters on the infield, but have to replace shortstop Douglas Kinsey, who graduated after earning first team all-district honors. Himes will move over from second to play shortstop, along with Flanagan, when heâ€™s not on the mound. Flanagan led the team at the plate last season, batting .410 while Himes also turned in a solid season in the batterâ€™s box, finishing at .310.
â€śFlanagan did a great job for us last year and Himes is a switch hitter who we will look to hit toward the top of the lineup,â€ť Howard said.
When Flanagan pitches and Himes is at shortstop, junior Chandler Hill â€“ up from junior varsity â€“ will man the second-base spot. Hamblett earned all-district honors as a utility player, but predominantly started at third base for the Red Raiders. Heâ€™s back, and along with Cobb, will man the hot corner while Payne is a returning starter at first base. Howard said junior Ben Romines, who is up from JV, has the ability to play either corner position as needed.
The Red Raiders have the luxury of three returning senior starters in the outfield, led by first-teamer Reed, who batted .356. Korthauer is back in left field with strong-armed speed merchant Tanner Bandel in right field.
â€śAll three of them got experience last year and all three of them got at-bats,â€ť Howard said. â€śThey run well, they play great defense and they have good arms.â€ť
Korthauer has already signed with Howard Junior College, following in the footsteps of former Red Raiders Burch Smith and Blake Barnes (went on to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State).
Howard said senior Marty Antilley is waiting in the wings to fill in at any of those three positions.
â€śI feel like the depth in the outfield is where we have our strength,â€ť Howard said. â€śWe have some juniors as well who can also step in for those guys.â€ť
Three of the past four Robert E. Lee catchers went on to play in college with the most recent, Travis Miller, excelling in academics. Miller earned second team all-district honors before going on to receive the Sara Murff Scholarship. He is now at Oklahoma majoring in biology/bio-chemistry.
Before Miller, Jimmy Landes (2011) signed with Baylor, Zach Cannon (2010) signed with the University of Dallas and Colin Moore to Paris Junior College.
Manning the catching position for Lee this season will be junior Tyler Jones.
Jones caught for the JV last year and Howard believes he will be able to make the step up and work well with his pitching staff.
â€śTyler is a very cerebral kid who understands the game,â€ť Howard said. â€śHeâ€™s going to do a good job defensively for us and I think he will be a very competitive get-after-it type guy at the plate.â€ť
District 12-5A glance
Gone is DeSoto and in its place: defending 4A state champion Rockwall-Heath and Rockwall, which like Lee, is enjoying a long streak of playoff appearances. Defending district champion Mesquite returns several players, along with second-place North Mesquite.
â€śI would say itâ€™s probably going to be one of the more competitive districts in the state,â€ť Howard said. â€śThe two Rockwall schools are fantastic and have been for 10-15 years for Rockwall and for Heath ever since it opened and just won a state championship.
Mesquite is the returning district champion with the returning district MVP, junior Daniel Ferra; North is coming off a playoff season, Horn was on the verge last year and returning players and Longview (is coming on). I think when you look at all of the teams; this is going to be a dogfight.â€ť
Glance at 2013 schedule
The Red Raiders open the season at home with Marshall before then hosting the 22nd annual Rose City Classic Feb. 21-23 at Mike Carter Field. This yearâ€™s event features host Lee, Forney, Hallsville, Kilgore, Sulphur Springs, Nacogdoches, Carthage and Lufkin Hudson.
Lee will compete in the Oil Belt Classic, hosted by Kilgore on Feb. 28 to Mar. 2 before opening up District 12-5A play at home March 5 against Mesquite Horn. The Red Raiders then go to the Waco Midway Tournament Mar. 7-9 where REL will play defending 5A finalist A&M Consolidated, Waco Midway and Waxahachie.
â€śThat will be a good tournament for us to see some teams that we havenâ€™t seen before,â€ť Howard said.
REL returns to district play at North Mesquite before playing its final non-district game against Bryan Adams on March 16. Then itâ€™s nothing but District 12-5A with Howard hoping leads to Leeâ€™s 12th consecutive playoff appearance in May.
â€śIt will come down to pitching and defense,â€ť Howard said. â€śWe feel like if we can pitch it and play good defense that we are going to be in the game and will do enough on offense to give ourselves a chance to win. Thatâ€™s how you are going to win a district championship.â€ť
Lee Baseball Schedule
Date Opponent Time
Feb.19 Marshall 6 p.m.
Feb. 21-23 Rose City Classic
Feb. 21 Sulphur Springs 12:15 p.m.
Feb. 21 Kilgore 7 p.m.
Feb. 22 Forney 4:45 p.m.
Feb. 23 Nacogdoches 2:30 p.m.
Feb. 26 Sulphur Springs 6 p.m.
Feb. 28-Mar. 2 Oil Belt Classic
Mar. 5 Mesquite Horn* 6 p.m.
Mar. 7-9 Waco Midway Tournament
Mar. 12 at North Mesquite* 7 p.m.
Mar. 16 at Dallas Bryan Adams 1 p.m.
Mar. 19 Rockwall* 6 p.m.
Mar. 22 at Mesquite* 7 p.m.
Mar. 26 Longview* 4 p.m.
Mar. 28 at Rockwall-Heath* 7 p.m.
Apr. 5 at Mesquite Horn* 7 p.m.
Apr. 6 North Mesquite* 2 p.m.
Apr. 12 at Rockwall* 7 p.m.
Apr. 16 Mesquite* 6 p.m.
Apr. 19 at Longview* 6 p.m.
Apr. 26 Rockwall-Heath* 6 p.m.
* District 12-5A Game