Tuesday, May 22, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> Gwatney baseball has more players than in recent years

Leader sports editor

The Gwatney Chevrolet American Legion baseball organization will enjoy more players this year than in many recent ones. Over 35 players are signed up and will make up a junior and a senior team. Team manager and coach of the senior team Bob Hickingbotham is excited about the upcoming season.

“We have more than we’ve had in a long time,” Hickingbotham said. “It’s good to see numbers up like they are. It’s been a struggle the last few years but kids are coming back out for baseball. That’s a good thing.”

Hickingbotham’s senior team will feature several players from last year’s squad that easily won the district regular-season title, but flamed out in the zone tournament. Four players will return from college ball to play, including Jacob Abrahamson, Xavier Brown, Kenny Cummings and Alex Tucker.

Just graduated Jacksonville senior Jesse Harbin will likely be the No. 1 pitcher in the rotation.

Despite last season’s success, including winning the Sheridan Wood Bat Classic and the Jacksonville Fourth of July Classic, as well as going 16-1 in the regular season, Gwatney struggled to field a senior team last year.

Only seven players of the right age group and from Jacksonville were on the team. Hickingbotham had to rely on players from as far away as Greenbrier and Magnolia, as well as moving up some younger players. That shouldn’t be the case this season.

“We’re going to have a good core group with the older team,” Hickingbotham said. “We’ve got some good college players back and some good high school players. A lot of the high school players got a lot better in the last year.”

Gwatney will also have five players from Cabot of different age groups who asked for and were granted releases to play for Gwatney. Also joining the team will be Magnolia first baseman Arvie Crudup. Crudup, who spends his summers in Jacksonville, played mostly for the junior team last season but was one of the players asked to move up to the senior team in the postseason just to have a big enough roster to qualify for postseason play.

The junior team will have plenty of depth and should be stronger than last year.

“We had some really young guys pitching for that junior team last year,” Hickingbotham said. “We’ll have some of those same guys, but they’ve gotten a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger.”

Derek St. Clair and James Tucker saw a lot of time on the mound as 14-year-olds last year. Both pitched frequently for the high-school team this year and both did well.

“We’re going to have six or seven junior kids playing for both the senior and junior teams,” Hickingbotham said. “They’re going to play a lot. When it’s all said and done, if we can get these kids in the right place and get them playing well, we could end up having a pretty doggone good junior team this year. The senior team should be good because they were good last year. The junior team is where you should see a lot of improvement.”