February 18, 2011 8:37:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Starkville High School baseball coach Danny Carlisle isn''t sure how good his team will be this season, but he won''t have to worry about players giving maximum effort.
The Yellow Jackets have six starting positions open, and they must find a replacement for The Dispatch All-Area Large Schools Player of the Year R.J. Johnson, who led the team in ERA, batting average, and home runs.
The players know they''re auditioning, which has made practices a delight, Carlisle said.
"You look at guys like Garret Batson and Blake Harrell, who transferred from Hebron (Christian School), they are working their tails off," Carlisle said. "They''re all receptive to working hard and don''t mind practicing."
Still, having so many inexperienced players is a cause for concern as the Yellow Jackets replace their middle infield. Harrell and sophomore Max Bartlett have shared time at shortstop, while Jordan Allgood and Hayden Higginbotham have been working at second base.
Bartlett, who hit .200 in 12 games last season, is the most experienced player of the group.
That''s just the beginning of Carlisle''s task to build a lineup ahead of Saturday''s four-team jamboree at Starkville High.
The Yellow Jackets also have to replace center fielder and Louisiana State-Eunice signee Chuck Tillery. The four-year starter was the team''s leadoff hitter and was the most trusted glove in the outfield. Tillery had a team-high 23 stolen bases.
Last season, the Yellow Jackets had to replace three of their top five hitters from the previous year. They successfully filled in the gaps and finished 14-9 and earned a playoff berth, but Carlisle admits the turnover this season concerns him.
"It''s one thing when you''re replacing guys with guys who have some experience," Carlisle said. "A lot of them have B-team experience, but there''s not a lot of varsity experience. It does make you worry, as a coach, about how they''ll adjust."
Much like many of the baseball teams in the area, the weather has limited the Yellow Jackets'' ability to practice outside. Therefore, they''ve had fewer opportunities to put their underclassmen through game-like situations.
Pitchers, however, have been able to throw between 60 and 70 pitches a day, and senior catcher Blake Dawkins, who is his third season as a starter, believes the group might be the strongest on the team.
Nick Brooks, a No. 2 pitcher last season, is the leading returner. Brooks had a 4.85 ERA last season, while senior Shaquille Hill finished at 2.92.
Dawkins admits the Yellow Jackets will miss Johnson''s ability to dominate on the mound, but insists they''ll be fine with the 12 players Carlisle plans to run out this year.
"All the pitchers are biting and looking to fill that role to prove themselves," Dawkins said. "You don''t have to throw in the 90s to be great. R.J. will be missed, but we''ve got some decent guys. Shaquille is back, and he''s a lefty with a lot of run. Nick Brooks, Garrett Batson, Wesley Montgomery, and Lee Peoples have picked up speed and throw curveballs and changeups better than they did last year."
Leadership goes hand in hand with experience, and Dawkins won''t shy away from his new role. He describes himself as a "hot-tempered" player who looks to channel intensity into leadership. He already has the numbers required of a leader -- he was second on the team with a .426 batting average and four home runs -- and is looking to follow in the footsteps of former teammates he credits for the program''s consistency.
"My freshman year, I had some pretty good people to look up to like Trip Fulgham, who taught me to be the catcher I am today," Dawkins said. "Daniel Forde and Zach Reynolds, they put in good effort and gave the team a good vibe. Hopefully, me and other seniors will be able to carry on that form of support."
Starkville will open the regular season Feb. 25 against Pearl at Yellow Jacket Field.