Vikings take aim at Trustmark

Published 11:24 am Friday, February 24, 2012

As the clock ticks closer to 2 p.m., the mood shifts in Warren Central’s clubhouse.

The smiles and the jokes slowly disappear. Smiles turn to focused looks of concentration. By the top of the hour — and rarely a minute after — the players are on the field and practice has begun.

It’s time for baseball. It’s time to go to work.

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“Each year, the work ethic increases,” said Josh Abraham, who will begin his fourth season as Warren Central’s coach on Feb. 24 when he leads the team against Terry. “People that truly work hard, it’s hard not to be successful. We’ve bought into the idea that hard work will pay off.”

Abraham and the rest of the Vikings believe this is the year the hard work pays off in a championship — not just in the division, either. With a veteran squad, deep pitching staff and strong lineup, they’re confident that a run at the Class 6A title is in the cards.

“We’ve got depth all over the field,” Abraham said. “This year, positions are going to be won, not given. I think that’s another reason the practice intensity has picked up.”

Warren Central’s depth begins on the mound. Returning starters Devon Bell (4-5, 2.56 ERA, 44 strikeouts in 52 innings) and Chase Ladd (1-3, 3.80 ERA, 31 strikeouts in 311⁄3 innings) will team with Vicksburg High transfer Cody Waddell to form a formidable three-man rotation. Waddell was slowed by a sore arm last season, but still had 30 strikeouts in 27 innings for the Gators.

WC pitching coach Conner Douglas said the deep rotation will pay big dividends as the season progresses.

“We’re going to be a lot more consistent on our days off and let them get their full rest,” Douglas said. “When your starters get deep in a ballgame, you use less of your bullpen and don’t have dead arms at the end of the year.”

In addition to Waddell, Warren Central picked up two of the better players from two of Warren County’s other high schools. Sophomore infielders Cameron Upton, from Porters Chapel, and Carlisle Koestler from St. Aloysius were both starters for their former teams last season.

Koestler must sit out this season since he transferred from another MHSAA school, but Upton is eligible and will compete for a spot in the infield.

“We’ve had some good additions to our ballclub that are going to help us,” Abraham said. “Any time you get somebody with experience, it’s always a positive.”

Offensively, the Vikings have four of their top six hitters from last season back for 2012. Leading the pack are catcher Hunter Austin (.354 average, 12 RBIs) and first baseman Will Stegall (.352, 17 RBIs).

Second baseman Brandon Gates had 30 hits and 19 RBIs last season, and outfielder Bill McRight (13 stolen bases) is a speedy threat in a season where station-to-station baseball will be the key to victory because of the new, lighter-hitting composite bats teams must now use.

Austin is a junior, but Stegall, Gates and McRight are among nine seniors on the roster that Abraham credits with changing the team’s attitude. A few minutes into practice, the Vikings are hustling from one drill to the next. Abraham’s practice has been scripted down to the minute, and there are penalties for being even a moment off schedule. Each minute extra the Vikings are on the field costs them a sprint from foul pole to foul pole.

“The intensity is different,” Gates said. “Our practice is totally different than it was last year. They’re restructured. Everything is more fast-paced than it used to be.”

It’s part of the new, laser-like approach that all of them hope will result in a different kind of sprint — from the dugout to the middle of the infield, at Trustmark Park in May to celebrate WC’s first state championship since 2001.

“Once each and every one of these guys believe, it will happen,” Abraham said. “And I believe every guy in the locker room believes what we can accomplish.”


Warren Central

Coach: Josh Abraham (fourth year)

Last year’s record:


Key returnees: RHP Devon Bell (4-5, 2.56 ERA, 44 strikeouts, 52 innings pitched); RHP Chase Ladd (1-3, 3.80 ERA, 31 strikeouts in 311⁄3 innings);

C Hunter Austin (.354 batting average, 12 RBIs); IF Brandon Gates (.319, seven doubles, 19 RBIs)

Key losses: SS/RHP Beau Wallace; IF/C Carlos Gonzalez; OF Clayton Ashley

Burning questions: Can the Vikings effectively replace the loss of their top two hitters? Will the pitching rotation live up to its potential and provide the depth needed for a deep playoff run?