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Vikings looking to live up to expectations

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

[02/19/01] Opening day could not have come any quicker for Sam Temple and his pitching staff.

The highly touted group of Vikings’ hurlers are desperate to see some hitters other than their teammates.

“Usually this time of year, pitching dominates,” said WC senior hurler Taylor Tankersley, a University of Alabama signee. “So far in practices, that has not been the case. Our hitters are tearing everything up. Hopefully, everyone else’s hitters aren’t doing the same thing.”

That shouldn’t be the case as the Vikings try to win their fourth straight Division 3-5A title. WC went 23-8 last season, but was knocked out of the state playoffs by eventual state champion Southaven.

With seven everyday starters returning, and many more who saw playing time, the expectations for this year’s team are high. They are ranked No. 3 in The Clarion-Ledger’s preseason poll.

“We’ll go as far as our chemistry will take us,” Tankersley said. “That will be our strongest point this year over years past.”

The upperclassmen have been playing together for most of their lives. At each home basketball game, a large contingent of players watched teammate Kevin Coker on the court.

“This bunch is exciting to be around,” Temple said. “It’s their character, the way they handle themselves and the way they get along together. They are a very special group with a lot of magic amongst themselves.”

A grueling summer schedule that saw WC win the state Amateur Athletic Union title and a trip to the American Legion state tournament have the Vikings raring to go for today’s opening game with Brookhaven.

Tankersley, the first Warren Central baseball player to sign at an SEC school, leads an experienced, deep pitching staff. He was 4-3 with a 2.87 earned run average in 2000 and had 73 strikeouts.

Junior Brian Pettway, considered by many to be the top junior in the state, Carl Upton and Kyle Simmons round out the Vikings’ starting rotation. Nineteen of the 28 players on the roster are listed as pitchers.

Junior John Morgan Mims is being groomed to replace Michael Goodson, who was the Vikings’ closer last season. Mims, the everyday right fielder, has been clocked in the mid-80s. For the time being, Temple said, his top three starters will act as closers. Joey Lieberman, Jeff Mitchell, Steven McDevitt, Andrew Simmons and Jeremy Ferguson will also see action on the mound.

Kevin Coker will start at catcher after backing up current Delta State catcher Craig Newton the last two years. Coker, who Temple described as unconscious on offense during the summer, ended basketball season on Tuesday, but Temple said it was unclear who would get the nod in today’s opener.

Backup Tyler DeRossette injured his wrist during powerlifting practice, but Temple said he should be back to full strength soon.

Upton (.292 and 12 RBIs) and Tankersley will split time at first base when the other pitches. Those two will lead a solid infield.

Kyle Simmons at second, junior shortstop Lieberman, who hit .314, and Brent Towne (.301) at third make up what Temple calls a very good infield defense.

“People who haven’t seen Joey play are in for something. He’s one of the best in the state,” Temple said. “And Brent Towne will be playing ball on the college level somewhere.”

Temple smiles bright when he gets to his outfield, which is anchored by Mims (.321, 4 home runs and 12 RBIs) in right and Pettway (.390, 7 home runs and 37 RBIs) in left. Chris Hite, a lightning-quick center fielder, is “in charge from foul pole to foul pole,” Temple said.

“I dare anyone to try either one of their arms out there,” Temple said of Mims and Pettway.

DeRossette and sophomore Joseph Williams will split most of the time as the designated hitter.

“It is an honor to be these kids’ coach because of the kind of kids they are,” Temple said. “… I tell people all the time heart and character; if you have that, things will fall in line. This bunch is right on line with that.”