Flashes gun for repeat|Prep baseball

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 24, 2010

In the wake of last season’s Class 1A championship, there seemed little doubt the St. Aloysius Flashes would be a force to reckon with again in 2010.

With only four seniors gone from the team that celebrated at Trustmark Park and most of their top rivals depleted by graduation or gone to Class 2A, it wasn’t a matter of if the Flashes would repeat but how could they not?

Well, now that you ask …

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A knee injury suffered during football season will sideline Ryno Martin-Nez, the team’s starting shortstop and one of its best pitchers, for much of the season. The three departed seniors left a void that will force several young players to step in right away, and other veterans to switch positions.

St. Al will still be a juggernaut in the Class 1A ranks, but coach Clint Wilkerson isn’t filling out order forms for another championship banner just yet.

“I’ve had to do a lot of juggling. A lot of our success is going to depend on guys who have not had high school playing time,” Wilkerson said. “We’re going to have to pin our ears back and push our guys. I’d always hear winning that thing is one of the hardest things you could ever do. But staying on top is harder.”

The shuffling on defense may be the biggest adjustment.

Martin-Nez’s injury will force Pierson Waring, who played second base last year, to move full-time to shortstop. It also takes an arm out of the rotation, forcing relatively unproven pitchers like Regan Nosser (12 1/3 innings pitched the last two seasons) and sophomore Josh Eargle (4-0 with a 1.65 ERA in 17 innings in 2009) to step into the Nos. 2 and 3 slots behind ace Stephen Evans.

They’ll also be throwing to someone new. Sean Weaver, a five-year starter at catcher, graduated and is playing at Hinds Community College this season. Brendan Beesley will move from left field to catcher, and Judson Gatling will take Beesley’s place in the outfield.

Gatling played in 20 games last season, all at second base.

“We lost four starters, so we just have to fill in the holes,” Beesley said. “Every defense has their holes. We know what ours are, and we have to work on them as the season goes on.”

The loss of Weaver, Corey Jones and Joseph Brown also left a hole in the lineup. All three players hit over .300 last season. As he’s tried to break in their replacements, Wilkerson said he’s come to appreciate their contributions even more.

“That’s a lot of offense,” Wilkerson said. “As the preseason has gone on, I’ve discovered they were more underrated than we thought.”

Wilkerson sees some promise from the newcomers, though. Eargle and freshman first baseman Reed Evans are expected to contribute this season and be building blocks in the years to come. Eighth-graders Carlisle Koestler and Matt Foley will also start the season in competition for the starting job at second base.

“(Evans) has got some serious talent. Once he gets out there and adjusts to the speed of the game he’s going to be a big plus,” Wilkerson said. “I’ve told those young guys they have to do things to force me to play them. Age doesn’t matter. It’s about getting the best nine on the field at the same time.”

If everything falls into place, St. Al could well be the best nine in the state again. Two of the top teams in Class 1A in recent years, East Webster and Stringer, were bumped up to 2A in the last MHSAA realignment. On paper, that will leave St. Al and division rival Cathedral — who had a combined record of 49-6 last season — as the favorites in 1A.

Beesley was quick to dismiss that thinking, saying that staying grounded is the best path to another title.

“The main thing is we’re defending state champions,” Beesley said, putting an emphasis on defending. “It’s not getting the big head and thinking about this year. Last year was good, but it’s gone. It doesn’t mean anything.

“Some teams moved up to 2A. That just means we’ll face different teams.”

Contact Ernest Bowker at ebowker@vicksburgpost.com