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Light practices, big results for VHS

Vicksburg High’s Josh McBride slides under Warren Central catcher John Rice Pettway for a run in the Gators’ 13-1 win over the Vikings earlier this season. McBride, who is third on the team with a .386 average, is part of a deadly VHS offense that is averaging more than nine runs and nine hits per game. (C. Todd ShermanThe Vicksburg Post)

[4/22/03]It’s just after 3 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, and Vicksburg High coach Jamie Creel has his feet propped up on the desk as he chats with a reporter.

While most of his coaching peers around the state are planning that day’s workout, or finishing up their first round of infield practice, Creel is thinking about his golf game and the best way to spend a sunny April afternoon.

The pings from the batting cage gradually fade as the last stragglers complete the day’s work all 70 minutes or so of it. By 3:30, all of the players will be long gone, and another successful day will be in the books.

The short practice isn’t a reward for a big victory or several weeks of long, grueling days on the Showers Field diamond. It’s just a normal day as a Gator in 2003.

“I love it. All year long, this has been a great year because we haven’t had to stay out here until 6:30 or 7:30. We get done what we need to do and go to the house,” said Vicksburg senior third baseman Matt Middleton, who’s fifth on the team with a .362 batting average.

During his first three years as the coach at Vicksburg, Creel did put his team through the long practices. The Gators would hit the field around 3 p.m. and work until 5 or 6, sometimes later.

That started to change this year, however, when Creel attended a coaching clinic and heard a seminar by Miami coach Jim Morris. Morris talked about how he had scaled back his practices during the season, keeping his team fresh for the stretch run that resulted in the 2001 NCAA championship.

When rain washed out several early-season practices this season, Creel was forced to turn the theory into policy. Vicksburg’s practice field was too wet to take batting practice, so he focused his team on staying sharp in the cage.

He never imagined what would happen next.

The Gators (19-7) started the season on a tear at the plate, averaging nearly seven runs per game in their first 11 contests. They haven’t let up since, averaging 9.2 runs while winning 15 of their last 17 games heading into this week’s North State semifinal series against Southaven.

Every Gator starter was hitting above .300 heading into the playoffs, and five were hitting .365 or better. As a team, Vicksburg is hitting .351. In 2002, Vicksburg hit .302 as a team and had only four players above .300.

Of the four returning starters from last season Paul Gorney, Justin Henry, Josh McBride and Middleton all but Henry have raised their average more than 130 points. Henry, an Ole Miss signee who hit .381 last season, has improved 72 points to a team-best .453

Choosing to focus on facing strictly live pitching, the Gators have taken batting practice on the field fewer than a half-dozen times since the season began.

“I thought it would start fading at some time, and we’d have to get back out there, but it hasn’t,” Creel said. “My first three years here, we have faded. We always played our best baseball at the beginning one year, and the middle one year, and I think some of it had to do with the kids being exhausted.”

That’s not a problem this year. The short practices have kept the Gators fresh mentally and physically as they head deeper into the playoffs.

“I remember getting down to the end last year, and a lot of people’s arms were getting sore and we fell off toward the end of the division race,” said Middleton, who has raised his average nearly 150 points since last season, from .218 to .362. “I feel a lot better than I did last year. Last year, me and a lot of the guys that were really fast were worn down.”

Although they enjoy the lighter workload, the Gators bristle at the suggestion that they don’t work at all.

Every VHS player hits in the batting cage on a daily basis, and work on defense, situations, and fundamentals are part of the regular routine and get added emphasis when needed. Many Vicksburg players also hit on their own in the cage, although they rarely take more than a dozen cuts apiece.

“We get in there and take our cuts. A lot of it has to do with superstition,” Henry said. “I’m sure if we were hitting .260 as a team we wouldn’t be talking about it.”

Behind the new coaching philosophy is also a philosophy for life that Creel wants to impress on his players. He said he doesn’t want them to become so wrapped up in sports that they forget to enjoy their high school years.

“That’s what high school baseball should be. It should be fun for them. I think that’s going to be a big factor in how far we go,” Creel said. “You’ve got to have life, enthusiasm. I don’t have the type of kids that live and breathe baseball. It took me three years to realize that.”

The lesson and the sign of respect from Creel hasn’t gone unnoticed by his players. Seeing that their coach trusts them to do their job has made them work harder than ever.

“I think it shows a lot that we’ve got a good senior class, and we’ve been playing together a long time,” Henry said. “There’s trust enough and respect enough that we’re going to get the job done, and we know what it takes to do it.”