Tuesday, May 21, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Gwatney deals with big turnout

Leader sports editor

Jacksonville American Legion coach Bob Hickingbotham has a numbers problem, but it’s not the one he usually deals with. Participation in American Legion baseball has slipped in recent years with the emergence of extended high school leagues and showcase teams. But this year, Hickingbotham has too many players. He says overall it’s a good thing, but there are some problems that come with having 41 players wanting to join his program.

“For one thing I only have one person helping me coach and he can’t be here every day, especially right now,” Hickingbotham said. “I’ve got a hand problem and can’t hardly swing a bat right now. I need somebody out there who can hit fun goes to these kids.”

The coaching situation means Jacksonville can’t possibly have three teams, and only two teams means everyone who comes out may not get to be a part of the program. There’s also a problem emerging concerning American Legion rules that says one team cannot pull from school districts whose combined enrollments exceed 5,000.

Right now Hickingbotham has players in practice from Jacksonville, North Pulaski, Cabot, Beebe and Abundant Life. Those schools combine for more than 4,300 in enrollment. He also says he’s received word that players from Vilonia, Des Arc and Lonoke want to play for Gwatney this year, which would bring the total to more than 5,600.

“I can’t have that many,” Hickingbotham said. “You can’t exceed 5,000. The kids from Vilonia, Lonoke and Des Arc haven’t shown up yet, but if things stay the same as they are right now, they may not get to play.

“We also have one program here nearby, that wants to tell kids they cut that they can come over here and play. But then they have kids that don’t want to play there, that they won’t let leave. It’s just a mess right now. We can’t have programs treating kids like that.”

Hickingbotham expects a fairly strong junior team. It will consist largely of players from Jacksonville’s and Beebe’s high-school teams. Both of those class 5A high-school programs made it to the state tournament this year with young lineups.

“I have just about the whole Jacksonville team able to play on my junior team,” Hickingbotham said. “I have eight or nine from Beebe and I think most of them are junior players. The North Pulaski kids are mostly senior players and I got one from Abundant Life.”

While the junior team appears strong, the senior team has good numbers, but not much pitching, according to the coach.

“We’ve got to find some people that can throw strikes and get people out or we’re going to be in trouble on that senior team,” Hickingbotham said. “You’ve got all these high-school programs kicking their seniors to the curb, so now you’ve got all these legion programs combining their senior teams and making all-star teams out of them. I don’t really have a problem with that. Those kids need a place to play. But we’re going to have a tough time against those teams if we can’t find some pitching.”

Hickingbotham says he’ll have a junior roster complete by the end of the week and just in time for the first game.

The Gwatney junior team plays Lonoke on Tuesday in the first round of the North Little Rock Memorial Day tournament at Burns Park.