Tuesday, February 26, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Jacksonville starting youngsters

Leader sports editor

The Jacksonville Red Devils’ baseball team has the large task of replacing an NCAA Division I pitcher and a fourth-round Major League Baseball draft pick from last season, and it has to do it with a very young team.

Though the team is young, it isn’t inexperienced. At least six sophomores will start on a regular basis, and four of them were full-time starters last year as freshmen.

“We’re young but everybody we’re going to put out there played some last year and they all played summer ball,” Jacksonville coach Larry Burrows said. “I think they’ve all improved. We’ll know how much once the season gets into swing, but I like this team. We’re going to struggle some but we’re going to scrap and compete. They work hard.”

Sophomores James Tucker and Derek St. Clair are the top two pitchers in the starting rotation. St. Clair became the No. 2 starter behind current UALR pitcher Jesse Harbin last season, but Tucker also got lots of time on the mound in key games. Tucker first caused people to take notice of his potential when he threw a seven-inning two hitter and got the win against 5A-Southeast champion and perennial powerhouse Sylvan Hills last season.

“Those are our two best and that’s what we’re going with,” Burrows said. “In conference, St. Clair will probably be No. 1 and Tuck No. 2. They’ve both improved. There usually is some improvement at that age. Tucker’s velocity has increased some but he’s still going to have to hit his spots and do the things he did last year to be successful.”

Sophomore Kaleb Reeves and junior Blake Perry will also see time on the mound, as well as freshman Brandon Hickingbotham.

“Perry’s going to get a lot of time on the mound and we’re going to need him,” Burrows said. “Where we’re going to be hurting this year is depth. Brandon can play, but he’s been in basketball and is a little behind right now. As a ninth grader coming in, it might be a little overwhelming for him to start.”

Reeves and Perry will also share time at third base. Across the diamond at first base will be David Williams, the team’s only senior starter.

Returning behind the plate is sophomore Greg Jones, who caught every conference game last season.

“Greg is definitely improved from last year,” Burrows said. “He was a lot better at the end of the year last year than at the beginning, and he’s continued to get better. So that’s going to help.”

Sophomore Courtland McDonald moves from right field where he started as a freshman last season, to centerfield to replace Cleveland Indians’ draft pick D’Vone McClure. McDonald struggled at the plate last year, but Burrows expects that to be better this season.

“We expect is average to be up this year,” Burrows said. “McClure only hit .242 as a ninth grader. It’s hard when you’re used to playing kids your own age to step right into varsity as a ninth grader. All of a sudden you’re 14 or 15 stepping in there against a lot of 18-year olds.”

Sophomore Justin Abbott will take over at right field. Abbott wasn’t an every-day starter last season, but did log quality innings. The same can be said of second baseman Ryan Mallison, who Burrows said is the team’s most improved player.

“He had a really good fall,” Burrows said of Mallison, also a sophomore. “He’s improved more than anybody we have from last year. He’s still small, but he’s grown a little. He’s a little stronger and his footwork is a lot better. He’s far exceeded where I thought he’d be right now.”

D.J. Scott will get the start in left field, with Laderrious Perry also vying for the position. Both are also sophomores.

“Defense is why D.J. gets that start,” Burrows said. “A couple years ago you started guys for offense, but with the new bats, defense wins out.”

Jacksonville’s first game was scheduled for yesterday at Burns Park against Central Arkansas Christian, but that game was canceled. They are scheduled to play at Cabot on Thursday.