PORTSMOUTH — Playing multiple positions on the diamond can be quite challenging.
But when one considers how small schools are across the region, players are expected to play up to two, and even three, positions from the start … and are expected to play them well.
Count Clay’s Reece Whitley as one of those athletes who can play multiple positions at a high efficiency. The junior, who pitches, catches, and plays in the infield when needed, is one of the best on a team that hopes to advance to heights never seen before in program history.
With Whitley, alongside talented players like Dakota Dodds, Evan Woods, Clay Cottle, Shaden Malone and many others, it’s clear that Clay’s talented roster is loaded with depth across the board.
“It means a lot to be able to play at Clay with such a talented team,” Whitley said. “We have amazing coaches that always prepare us to the max for upcoming games and push us to our maximum potential in practice. They know our abilities and expect the best from us. This team has played together since Little League, and our bond is extremely hard to break.”
Whitley, who stands out on the soccer pitch as well as the basketball court, has proven himself in all three areas.
On the soccer pitch, as an effective scoring option at the top of Clay’s attack, alongside Cottle and Bryce Toomire, Whitley helped improve the Panthers’ record from 7-10 in 2017 to 9-6-1 in 2018 with a 4-2 mark in the SOC I.
In basketball, Whitley was part of another improving movement as Clay tripled its win total behind the junior’s 13.6 points, 4.3 assists, and 4.5 rebounds per game. Those numbers allowed the multi-positional athlete to obtain special mention all-Southeast District honors for the first time.
“Playing multiple sports with many different teammates has been so much fun for me,” Whitley said. “I have so many coaches and they’re all amazing in what they will do for you on and off the court. I’ve had [Marc] Cottle and [Douglas] Ledingham all throughout my sports career so I have grown under them. [Tiny] Anderson was new to our school, but he is such an amazing coach and we have enjoyed playing under him.”
For Whitley, however, his best sport is arguably baseball … and it’s also the sport where he and his friends have found the most success.
After hitting a respectable .242 during his freshman campaign with 11 RBIs, while holding down primary catching duties and serving in the pitching rotation, Whitley rose his batting average by over 70 points in his sophomore year, hitting .313 while taking on the co-ace load alongside Dodds and senior Keith Cottle.
In addition to his massive improvement from a contact standpoint, the junior drew 15 walks in 2018, compared to eight in 2017, and scored a team-leading 26 runs.
On the hill, Whitley improved even more, logging 41 1/3 innings pitched compared to seven the year prior while improving his ERA from 5.00 to 3.04 while collecting 45 strikeouts.
The junior also vastly improved in the field by boosting his fielding percentage from .914 in 2017 to .974 in 2018. In part, thanks to Whitley, Clay improved from 14-10 and a district semifinal appearance in 2017 to a 19-7 mark and a district championship appearance in 2018, the school’s first since 2003.
“It was an unforgettable feeling to reach the district finals for the first time since 2003,” Whitley said. “We aren’t satisfied, though. We look to push even further this year and our performances are going to help us get there. Starting off this season like we have is giving us a great amount of momentum going into each game. We aren’t taking any teams lightly because it can be anyone’s game on any given day.”
In 2019, Whitley’s kicked it up even further.
Through 12 games, the senior is batting .455 with seven doubles, a triple, and 18 RBIs and has posted a strong 4-0 mark on the bump with a 1.31 ERA to go alongside 34 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings of work. And fielding-wise, Whitley hasn’t committed a single error in 41 defensive chances.
They’re all numbers that could have Whitley in line to play at the next level — but they’re also numbers the junior says wouldn’t be possible without the play of his teammates and friends beside him who, like Whitley, take on the role of playing two to three different positions depending on the day.
“It’s extremely relieving to have teammates who are able to play multiple positions and play them well,” Whitley said. “It gives our pitchers the day off after they have pitched a full game to reduce the risk of injury. We have players that can step up and play the position they’re asked just as good as the guy before. I always know that I can trust my defense behind me no matter who plays where.”
Stability in the program, according to Whitley, has also been critical.
Since former Clay graduate Marc Cottle took over the head coaching post in 2015 and brought assistants Barry Crabtree, Kylon Crabtree, and Joe McCleese on board, the Panthers have been off and running. Clay has posted three winning seasons over the last four years, including a 15-win season in 2015 and a 19-win campaign last year.
This season, Clay’s already off to an 11-1 start, including a 5-0 record in the SOC I, holds impressive victories over South Webster (11-2), Portsmouth (11-1), and Valley (3-1), and is ranked 13th in the Division IV realm, according to Ohio’s Prep Baseball Report state rankings.
“Coach Cottle has coached us all the way up from Little League to where we are now. He’s put so much of his time in so we could be the best we can be in high school and also push us to the next level of baseball. Coach Barry [Crabtree] and Coach [Kylon] Crabtree were new to our group when we came to high school. They’re amazing coaches and they’ll do anything and everything to get the best out of us everyday. They made us work harder than we ever have before. Our goal is to win the league and last year we fell short one game. But this year, we are ready to win the SOC title and have a deep tournament run. I wouldn’t change what we have here at Clay for anything. We are family and we’ll always stick with each other no matter what we face.”
The last sentence to that statement is exactly what’s going to make Clay a tough out in any contest it plays. Of course, Reece Whitley’s going to be a tough out, and will get the tough outs, no matter who he’s facing off with.
“Winning the league title is the first goal we want to accomplish,” Whitley said of the team’s expectations going forward. “Beyond that, we want to make the deepest tournament run Clay has seen in baseball and put the program on the map statewide.”