Gators lose big guns, gain depth

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 16, 2001

This is the second in a series of previews of local baseball teams. Friday: Vicksburg High; Monday: Warren Central; Feb. 26: Porters Chapel.

[02/16/01] Vicksburg High’s pitching staff was hit hard by graduation, not opponents.

But the Gators do have a luxury they didn’t last year depth. And not just on the mound.

“There’s no question that we lost some players that will be missed,” second-year VHS coach Jamie Creel said, adding that the team was often too dependent on big guns Robby Goodson, Jeremy Stokes and Chris Wilhelms, all of whom signed to play collegiately. “This year, everyone relies on one another. They all enjoy being around each other.”

That camaraderie coupled with more experienced and evenly distributed talent could help the Gators sneak up on some teams this season.

“We have a solid backup at every position, and that’s something we didn’t have last year,” Creel said. “They’re all pushing each other.”

Still, with only one senior who will play everyday and 11 juniors, Creel knows expectations for his team are not high.

“We expect to catch a lot of number-five pitchers,” he said, smiling.

And that’s just fine with him. After all, with the return of Mitchell Beauman, J.J. Brown and other solid hitters throughout the lineup, offense should be the Gators’ strength despite the loss of their top two hitters, Goodson and Stokes.

“We have more power as a whole,” added Creel, whose squad combined for a modest 12 homers last year. “We’ve got six or seven that can hit it out for us now.”

But the long ball alone won’t win games for the Gators.

“We’ve got to have timely hitting,” he said. “During one stretch last year, we hit .775 with runners in scoring position. We need that all of the time this year.”

On the mound, the Gators aren’t overpowering or experienced. There is no clear-cut ace in the current four-man rotation, which had a combined four wins in 2000.

Creel is taking the “Johnny Wholestaff” approach, using Beauman, Bob Berry, side-armer Chris Middleton and freshman Justin Boler as starters. Justin Henry, who went 3-0 with a 1.06 ERA last year, will likely move to the front of the pack when basketball is over. John Rohrer, Joel Cheslek, Eric “Boo” Hardy, Corey Hudson and Adam Logue will also see spot duty.

“Justin Boler may wind up being the winningest pitcher in the history of Vicksburg High School,” Creel said of his lone left-handed starter.

When Beauman (catcher) and Henry (shortstop) are on the mound, the Gators will lose a little defensively. Ryan Grey, who caught plenty of games over the summer, will play in Beauman’s place. Beauman or Steven Randle will be at short when Henry pitches.

Letting juniors Grey and Jeremy Herring work behind the plate will help develop a catcher for next year, when Beauman is gone.

Brown, a two-time All-County selection, has the center field spot nailed down.

“His attitude has been tremendous,” Creel said of Brown. “He’s being a real team player.”

The other outfield spots will be shared by Rohrer whose bat was impressive over the summer Berry, David Stagg and Middleton. Surprising freshman Ben Shelton is also pushing for playing time.

At second, Grey’s position last year, Josh McBride “has one of the best pair of hands I’ve ever seen,” Creel said. At third, Hardy and Hudson are similar defensively, but will alternate depending on offensive needs. Hardy is a gap-hitter and Hudson is a fastball hitter.

“That’s a tough decision every time I fill out the lineup card,” Creel said.

At first, the Gators still need some work defensively, Creel said. Left-handed power-hitter Paul Gorney provides the most punch, but Middleton is solid, too.

While Henry is out, VHS will also be missing one of its top hitters. He didn’t strike out in 45 games over the summer.

“He has so much promise,” Creel said.

As for the division race, Creel said he expects it to be competitive. Greenville is improved and Gentry has a pitcher, Michael Spurlock, who “can beat anyone, anytime,” Creel said.

Then there’s archrival Warren Central, which “is one of the top five teams in the state,” he said.

The Gators will get ready for those games with a tougher schedule, which includes meetings with perennial powers Madison Central, George County, Northwest Rankin, Clinton and Brookhaven.

VHS was the only Warren County team to win a playoff game last year. And Creel thinks his squad can do it again.

With a new fieldhouse nearly complete and upgrades at Showers Field, there are plenty of positive things going on with VHS baseball.

“We’ve got guys that want to compete and fulfill their roles,” he said. “If everyone stays on an even keel and plays smart, we’ve got a chance to win 20 games.”