Retooled Gators ready for run at postseason berth

Published 11:25 am Friday, February 17, 2012

When evaluating Vicksburg’s senior-laden outfield, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers.

Last season, Lamar Anthony and Clyde Kendrick combined for some eye-popping statistics, with both hitting over .350 and driving in a combined 51 runs. Both are adept base stealers who give opponents nightmares when they get on a base. Their defensive skills and speed turn dying quails and line drives from hits into outs.

It’s no doubt that the pair comprise one of the state’s best outfield. But will that be enough to lead Vicksburg back to the Class 6A playoffs? The Gators are reloading after losing a big chunk of their infield, a big piece of their pitching staff and their best overall offensive player, Jonathan Clay.

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While the Gators are on the third coach in three years after Jamie Creel moved up into administration and Cody Zumbro returned to Clinton as an assistant, first-year skipper Ryan Grey was there all three years as the team’s top assistant. The continuity has helped make it an easy transition for him.

“The kids know what I expect from them,” Grey said. “Everything has gone as soon as it could have. We have a good, close group of kids who hang out on the nights and on the weekends.”

While there are holes on the field, the Gators return some pieces in key spots.

The top of the pitching staff is definitely solid. Kendrick (3-3, 66 strikeouts, 2.23 ERA) is an inning-eating lefty who can touch 88 mph with his fastball and has a nice change-up and curveball as well.

No. 2 starter Cameron Cooksey (3-3, 44 strikeouts, 3.62 ERA in 2011) specializes in off-speed stuff and is more of a groundball pitcher. The key will be finding a third starter and a bullpen. Grey has some options like righties Gabe Bufkin, Jekori Reed and Alex Thomas, and left-hander Tyler Smith.

“Other than Clyde, we don’t have that dominant pitcher who can shut anyone down,” Grey said. “We’ve got to pitch to contact. We’ve got some live, young arms, but the key word there is young.”

Another key position up for grabs is the fourth outfielder spot to team with Anthony, Kendrick and new right fielder A.J. Stamps. With Kendrick pitching twice a week, a spot in the outfield opens up for a worthy candidate.

“It’s been a pretty good battle so far and it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out,” Grey said. “We’re going to have one of the best outfields in the state. With their speed out there, you’re really going to have to get on a ball to turn it into a double.”

One thing Grey wants to avoid is a platoon at shortstop, something the Gators had to do last season. Sophomore Michael Rohrer was solid last year in spot duty and will take over full time, putting a left-handed bat in the lineup as well.

“He played a pretty good amount for us last year,” Grey said. “He’s been through the fire and he’s looked well all fall and spring. I believe in having that one guy at shortstop from day one and, hopefully, Michael is that guy for us for the next three years.”

One area that will help the Gators is the new BBCOR (Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution) bats that will be mandatory this season. With their smaller sweet spots, the days of big-time home runs in high school baseball are over. The Gators stole 104 bases last season and have above-average speed up and down the lineup, making them an ideal contender in a new golden age of small-ball.

“I think it’s going to benefit us on the positive side,” Grey said. “We’re not a power-hitting team. We’re a small-ball, hit-and-run, bunt ‘em over-type team. With our speed on the basepaths, we’ll be able to generate runs.”

Pitchouts – Vicksburg

Coach: Ryan Grey (first year)

2011 record: 13-15, lost to South Panola in first round of Class 6A playoffs

Key returnees: CF Lamar Anthony (.449, 23 RBIs, 24 steals); OF/LHP Clyde Kendrick (.365, 28 RBIs, seven doubles, six triples; 3-3 record, 66 strikeouts, 2.23 ERA); 1B/RHP Cameron Cooksey (.307, 15 RBIs; 3-3, 3.62 ERA, 44 strikeouts)

Key losses: C/Taylor Brocato, IF Jonathan Clay, OF Justin Pettway, LHP/IF Cody Waddell

Burning questions: Can the Gators find a consistent third pitcher behind Kendrick and Cooksey? Can they fill important voids at catcher, third base and shortstop?