Youth movement has Flashes flying high|[4/21/05]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 21, 2005

There were times, early this season, when cynical observers watched the St. Aloysius Flashes and compared them to a little league team.

The truth was, they weren’t far from it.

With two seventh-graders and an eighth-grader in the lineup, the Flashes booted grounders, missed signs, struggled at the plate and made other assorted mental mistakes while slumping to a 1-4 record.

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But the kids grew up in a hurry. They quickly adjusted to the speed and distance of the high school game, tough situations and the weight of expectations to turn things around.

Now, six weeks after that dismal start, the Flashes (14-7) are in the playoffs. They’ve won 10 of their last 13 games – with two of the losses coming against defending state champion Cathedral – and are looming as a darkhorse candidate for a long postseason run.

They’ll start it this weekend in a Class 1A regional at Stringer. St. Al plays Salem today at 4 p.m. in the first game of the double-elimination, four-team tournament, with Stringer hosting Bogue Chitto in the other. The winners of today’s games meet at 1:30 p.m. on Friday.

The winner of the regional advances to the best-of-three Class 1A South quarterfinals against the winner of the Union regional – either Union, French Camp, Ethel or Edinburg.

“I think we’re way ahead of schedule, where everybody thought we would be,” said St. Al shortstop Ryno Martin-Nez, a seventh-grader who has started every game this season and is hitting around .470. “We just didn’t focus earlier in the year. Now that we’ve gotten back on track, we’ve done a whole lot better.”

Martin-Nez, one of five St. Al players who are only a year removed from playing on the Vicksburg Hurricanes 12-year-olds’ tournament team, jumped to the high school level with plenty of hype.

He was one of the best players on a Hurricanes team that won tournament after tournament for several years, and St. Al coach Clint Wilkerson has often touted him as a future star in the high school ranks and beyond.

When Martin-Nez made the early leap to high school ball, however, he found the game a little different. It took a while to learn how to make longer throws and hit pitching coming from 60 feet, 6 inches away instead of 46 feet.

“One day I just started doing real well, and got better and better every day,” Martin-Nez said. “It just peaked in my mind every once in a while. Then I thought about it and realized I just had to keep my head up. If I let it get me down I would lose my spot.”

While Martin-Nez earned his spot in the preseason, Pierson Waring and Sean Weaver earned theirs through hard work and a little luck after the games had started.

Waring, a 13-year-old seventh-grader and former Hurricane, was on the bench for St. Al’s first few games. He kept working, though, and took over as the starting second baseman about two weeks into the season.

“I had a chance,” Waring said. “I needed to hit, and not make any errors.”

Since then, he’s done exactly that. Waring has hit nearly .400 and earned a reputation as a tough out. He’s tenacious at the plate, and his small 5-foot-5 frame allows him to draw plenty of walks.

Waring also has been good defensively, teaming with Martin-Nez to form a solid double play combination that should be with St. Al for the next six years.

“Pierson had to work his way in. The whole preseason, he was breathing down somebody’s neck, and he got his chance and kept producing,” Wilkerson said.

Weaver also made the most of his chance, but got it through an unfortunate break. Senior catcher Rob Jones was dismissed from the team early in the season, opening the door for the eighth-grader who was only a part-time starter on the junior varsity squad last season.

“I wanted to be in there anyway. I was just waiting for my opportunity,” Weaver said. “It was hard at first, but it’s routine now … It’s pretty tough to learn on the fly, but once you get used to it, it just flows.”

Wilkerson praised Weaver for the way he handled being thrown into the fire.

“I think it was a tough situation for him, for about a day. Then he wanted to do it,” Wilkerson said. “I told him he was going to be a four-year starter, and now he’s going to be a five-year starter.”

Weaver doesn’t bat – Wilkerson uses a designated hitter in his place – but has been solid defensively. He has also done a good job of learning the finer points of the position, like calling pitches and blocking balls in the dirt.

“He catches a great game,” Wilkerson said. “He’s smart. He gets inside my head sometimes. I’ll go to call a pitch, and he’ll be asking for the same thing.”

Martin-Nez, Waring and Weaver are the youngest Flashes, but they’re not the only ones. Sophomore center fielder Jordan Muirhead is in his third season as a starter, and freshman Johnathan Longmire has developed into a reliable pitcher. The team only has two seniors and two juniors, assuring that this playoff run should be the first of many.

And that, according to Weaver, is no surprise.

“I knew we were going to be good. We’ve got a good club,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how young we are. We’ve worked too hard to lose.”