It's Kentucky Derby time, so Paul Laurence Dunbar senior outfielder Nicky Avioli used a horse-racing analogy to describe just how inconsistent the Bulldogs' baseball team has been this spring.
"We can run a mile and a sixteenth wire-to-wire, or we can get beat by 18 lengths by a horse that got claimed for $7,500," Avioli said. "You just never know with us."
Dunbar's 10-9 record reflects how it has run in fits and starts. Coach Seth Knight said his team is still learning what it must do to compete with the "better horses" on its schedule.
"We've shown we can run with them," he said, noting Dunbar has jumped ahead of 43rd District rivals (and top-five teams) Lafayette and Lexington Catholic, only to squander early leads.
"We see the finish line, but instead of accelerating and going to the whip hard, we ease off and hope to coast to victory. In this district, that's impossible."
Dunbar came into this season with a stable full of experience, including a half-dozen starting players, and veteran pitchers Zac Conner and Isaac Taylor.
The everyday returnees include first baseman Jacob Herrin (who splits time with Taylor), third baseman Jacob Crouch, shortstop Evan Nicoulin (who moved over from second), and outfielders Avioli (left), Joseph Graf (center) and Garrett Bugg (right).
Andrew Akins is behind the plate. Hunter Wright has taken over at second base.
While Conner and Taylor are the top arms, Dunbar's staff has depth with Nicoulin and the emergence of sophomores Wright, Timmy Lancaster and Austin Shepherd.
Knight expected Dunbar's pitching and defense to be solid this season, and they have been. The team has a .965 fielding percentage and an earned run average less than 3.00. The problem has been consistency at the plate, not just game-to-game, but also inning-to-inning.
Taylor, Graf and Avioli, all left-handed hitters, have done their job in the 1-2-3 slots in the order. All are hitting better than .300. But even they see a difference in their approach at the plate as the game progresses.
"We've had success when we really hunt the fastball early in the count," Taylor said. "When we go after it early, we hit line drives everywhere. But after the first couple innings, the energy goes away, and we get lackadaisically."
Graf said the Bulldogs' hitting improved after a six-week winter program, but he's also seen the team's tendency to ease up after the early innings. "In order for us to really make waves in this district, we have to keep up that aggressiveness throughout the game."
Avioli said "it seems like we turn into ghosts. We fade away. The mindset is completely different. We have too much complacency, and that needs to be replaced with an edge. When it's an emotional, almost angry game, we play 1,000 times better."
Knight is encouraged by how his team has competed in the district against Lafayette, Lexington Catholic, Lexington Christian and Tates Creek, all of whom threw their aces against Dunbar.
Knight said the Bulldogs' ultimate success rests on how they swing the bat.
"We're at the point now where we can go one of two ways. We either continue to get better offensively and turn out to be very competitive, or we don't improve our consistency at the plate and we struggle."
Avioli has confidence Dunbar will get in a groove. This year's team reminds him of the 2012 Bulldogs, who were 12-12 before putting together an 11-game winning streak. They made it to the 11th Region Tournament where they lost a close game to eventual state champion Woodford County.
"That team was full of seniors," Avioli said. "This year we've got an older group, too. I think when the time comes, we'll be fine."
In horse racing terms, Avioli thinks Dunbar could still find itself in the district winner's circle.