Tuesday, February 21, 2012

SPORTS >> Panther baseball gets started

Leader sports editor

The Cabot Panthers won’t be as young as last year’s team that started three freshmen, but it still has plenty of youth dotting the starting lineup. There also won’t be, at least early, a dominant No. 1 man in the pitching rotation, but there is depth in the rotation and it is quality depth, according to head coach Jay Fitch.

“I won’t have the one dominant guy that I’ve always been used to having,” Fitch said. “What we have is about seven or eight guys that are pretty solid. We don’t have anyone that will blow you out of the box, but we’ve got some guys that can throw strikes and have decent arm strength.”

Starting the season as the leader of the rotation is left-handed junior Ryan Logan. He pitched in all of Cabot’s conference series’ last season and brings the most experience to the staff this year.

“He only averages about 78, 79 miles per hour, but he has phenomenal control,” Fitch said. “We were charting them in the bullpen the other day and out of 70 pitches, he only threw about four balls. He doesn’t walk people. He throws strikes and can usually put it somewhere that keeps it from flying off the bat when they do make contact.”

Also getting a lot of mound time last year, and holding the No. 2 spot in the rotation is junior Dustin Morris, who has grown and gotten stronger since last season. He’s added velocity to his pitches, and Fitch expects him to be better this season.

“He threw a complete-game shutout against North Little Rock last year and, they’re usually pretty talented,” Fitch said. “Both of those guys got their feet wet last year and gave us a lot of good innings. They both got knocked around a little bit at times too last year, but I expect to see less of that this season. They’ve put in a lot of work in the offseason.”

Having a full offseason is something Cabot enjoyed this year that it hadn’t in the past. Fitch had always been an assistant track coach, but last year was able to go baseball only.

“That’s been a big, big help for our program,” Fitch said. “This the first year where we’ve been able to work every day and have a full, focused offseason. The teams in the west have been doing that for years, so this is going to be a tremendous help and I really want to thank Dr. Thurman for working it out where we can do this. We weren’t nearly as far behind when we started in January as we had been in the past.”

Sending signals to the mound and batting third in the lineup will be senior T.C. Carter. Carter hit .476 last season with four home runs.

“We’re expecting a huge year out of him,” Fitch said. “He had an all-state type season last year and he has aspirations to play college ball. So he’s been working really hard and looks to be getting better and better.”

Senior Justin Goff will play third and hit cleanup. Goff came one short of tying the Cabot’s record for doubles in a season last year with 16.

Cole Thomas will start at shortstop and bat in the eight or nine hole.

“He’s really a leadoff-type hitter,” Fitch said. “He’s a contact guy, a speed guy. He’s one of the fastest guys on the team. He has solid hands in the infield and a pretty good arm.”
Dustin Morris and Jordan Castillow will split time at second base. Sophomore Zachary Patterson will start at first base, but has the strongest arm on the team and will be a part of the pitching rotation as well. James McCrany will play first base also.

“People that just watch us play will think Zachary has the best stuff on the mound for us,” Fitch said. “He’s the only one we’ve got that’s bringing it around 85 or 86 miles per hour. And he’s just a sophomore so we hope he keeps getting stronger. He has loads of potential.”

Sophomore Casey Kimbrell, who started several games last year, will start at left field.

Leading off and playing centerfield will be senior Bryson Morris.

“He already looks in midseason form,” Fitch said. “He’s been outstanding in our scrimmages and one of the few that looks really comfortable out there, even this early.”

Junior Casey Vaughn will start in right field.

“He really came on and started hitting really well late in summer American Legion, so we’re hoping he just picks that back up and keeps improving.”

The 7A Central is loaded again this year. The league made up three quarters of the state semifinals last year.

“Everyone thinks the West is better because they won a few state titles in a row for a while, but the West is top heavy,” Fitch said. “It’s pretty average in the middle and there are some teams that aren’t very good at the bottom. It’s not like this league where there’s not a single breather the whole season. This league is tough top to bottom.”

Catholic is the early-season favorite to win the conference. The Rockets have four pitchers that have already signed scholarships.

“There’s no doubt they have the best pitching in the conference,” Fitch said. “And they also have the most experience. They’ll be starting nine seniors so you know they’ll be salty.”

There’s not much dropoff after that either.

“Conway will be Conway and Bryant will be Bryant,” Fitch said. “Say what you want about them losing people, they both have very strong programs and they just reload every year.”

Russellville has several college-level players as well. Central returns three seniors that made up the top of its pitching rotation last year. North Little Rock and Van Buren, like Cabot, were very young but talented last season, and should be improved overall.

“There’s just no weak teams in this conference,” Fitch said. “It’s going to be a dogfight every game.”

Cabot started the season with a benefit game at Lonoke on Tuesday. Look for details of that game in Saturday’s edition of The Leader. They will play Beebe next Tuesday.