May 7, 2010 9:55:00 AM
HAMILTON -- Support comes in all varieties.
In baseball, teammates can back their pitchers with solid defense, timely hitting, and a selfless approach.
The Hamilton High School baseball team is fortunate because it has five seniors who provide that support in every facet of the game.
Left-handed pitcher Dylan Earnest and outfielder Kevin McCartney probably are the two of Hamilton''s most recognized players, but designated hitter Devin Hopper, shortstop Nathan Cockerham, and outfielder Cole Johnson have played integral roles in the Lions'' success this season.
Those three players hope to continue to excel in their roles at 7 tonight when Hamilton (18-3) plays host to defending state champion Ackerman in Game 1 of the best-of-three Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 2A second-round playoff series.
Game 2 will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at Ackerman. The "if needed" Game 3 will be Monday at Hamilton.
Earnest leads the Lions with a 9-0 record and a .486 batting average, which is the best among regulars, while McCartney is second on the team in batting average (.429) and stolen bases (10).
From there, Hopper, Cockerham, and Johnson help pick up the load. After a slow start, Hopper has come on in the last part of the season and is hitting .409. He is tied with Chase Reeves for the team lead in home runs (three) and is second in RBIs (21).
"He has been seeing the ball real well," Hamilton coach Lewis Earnest said. "He is big, strong, and is a threat to hit it out of the park."
Hopper said he has been more relaxed at the plate, which has helped him raise his batting average about 200 points. He credits Dylan Earnest, Austin Earnest, Brandon Fikes, and Reeves, in a limited role, for being outstanding on the mound.
"They have done the job all year and we have to have their back," Hopper said.
Hopper believes he has a responsibility as the No. 4 hitter in the lineup is to be a run producer to help support the pitchers. He said Austin Welch and Cole Gill have had his back when he hasn''t delivered.
Cockerham moved from second base to shortstop and has solidified the Lions'' defense. He said he wasn''t sure if he would be able to make the transition, but he said he realized as soon as he changed positions he wanted to remain in his new spot.
"Moving to shortstop I had to step up because I wanted to play," Cockerham said.
Cockerham is hitting only .227, but his defense has been a pleasant surprise. The emergence of Welch has second base has given the Lions a solid presence up the middle.
"Nathan is solid defensively," Earnest said. "He is a contact hitter who normally puts it in play. He plays hard. He is gritty and tough and just loves to play."
Earnest said Cockerham played at shortstop a few times last season. He said Cockerham''s arm strength is deceiving and he uses his quickness and fast release to deny opportunities.
Johnson only has four hits in 20 games this season, but his contributions have been just as valuable. He has provided defensive support in left field and reassuring confidence off the field and in the locker room. His ability to play for team goals instead of individual ones has been a key to the team''s chemistry.
"Cole has a lot of ability, but he has just struggled at the plate," Earnest said. "He is pretty solid in the outfield. He had a good game the other day against Broad Street, so we''re just going to see what happens. He can run, he has power, he has just struggled this year. I hope he will come out of it."
Earnest said Johnson probably hasn''t played as much as he would like, but he said his attitude has been spectacular. He said a lot of players would have quit or have been a "bad apple" that could affect team morale or cohesiveness. He said his positive attitude and team approach have helped the Lions keep going.
Hopper said things seem to have fallen into place late in the season, which could be a good sign for things to come.
"In the beginning of the season, we relied a little bit more on our pitching than anything, and that kept us in a lot of ballgames," Hopper said. "After we started district play, things just started clicking and we found the right people for each position and everybody got settled in. All of the pieces just fell into place. Since then, I think we have been an outstanding ballclub all around. That has been what keeps us going. As long as everybody realizes it and stays focused and does their job, we ought to make a good run at it this year."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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