Wednesday, July 03, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Strikeout streak lifts Sherwood Gwatney

Leader sports editor

The Gwatney GMC Bears, which consists of next year’s Sylvan Hills varsity players, handed Lake Hamilton a 3-0 loss on Monday. The Bears aren’t playing in a league this year, instead playing as an extended high school team and facing teams that range from other extended high school teams, to showcase teams to American Legion teams. The team has compiled a non-tournament record of 5-3 and went 0-1-2 in a showcase tournament in Jonesboro.
Assistant coach Chris Foor says the decision not to play American Legion this year has resulted in a lot of benefits.

“It’s been a  great experience,” Foor said. “I think overall, for the age group of our kids, they’re playing some of the better talent. We’re seeing the highest level of competition in the state you could see.”

The key thing that Sylvan Hills has seen develop since summer ball began has been pitching. Three arms that coaches knew they would be relying on have gotten better, and another one is emerging rapidly.

The only player the Bears lost from last year’s state-tournament team was ace hurler J.D. Miller. The No. 2 pitcher in that rotation was Conner Poteet, and he has emerged as the clear No. 1 right now.

“His velocity is approaching the mid 80s right now,” Foor said. “His breaking ball is getting much better and he’s always had a great change up. He’s been really, really strong for us. He’s improved so much.”

After Poteet, coaches believe that Hunter Heslep and Marcus Long are both capable of starting in the No. 2 spot. Sylvan Hills went to Heslep more often as a spot or nonconference starter last year, using Long mainly in relief. But Foor says he’s confident in either one.

“Heslep was hurt early in the year so we went to him a lot more a lot out of needing to get him back and working at full strength,” Foor said. “Whereas with Marc, he was the guy we could rely on if we needed someone to pitch in both games. Maybe give us two innings in one game and another one or two in the next. Marcus’ velocity has gone up quite a bit too.”

Sophomore-to-be Joseph Craft has also improved in leaps and bounds since summer began, and he dazzled at times on the mound in earning Monday’s win.

After enduring a shaky start in which he gave up a run and had runners on second and third with no outs in the second inning, Craft got his second visit of the inning from coach Denny Tipton, who apparently spoke magic words. After the mound conversation, Craft struck out the next three batters, then fanned three-straight batters in the third inning.

He gave up a walk, a hit and hit a batter in the fourth, but not in a row. In between he got a groundout, a strikeout and a pop up to get out of the frame without allowing a run. He finished his four innings with eight strikeouts, three walks, a hit batter, three base hits and one earned run.

“He didn’t even know how to pitch until we started working with him in eighth grade,” Foor said. “He’s grown so much. We also have another young pup who’s showing us a lot, and that’s Carson Sanders. We feel like we’re going to have a pretty strong pitching staff and even some pretty good depth to it. With so many guys showing this jump in velocity as well as in mental maturity, we feel pretty good about right now.”

Jacob White has shown deftness in the field. He started at centerfield in the spring, but has swapped positions with Brandon Baioni and has played shortstop much of the summer.

“We’re experimenting with things like that, trying to develop some depth if need be and learning where we can play guys,” Foor said. “Jacob is really one of the better athletes on the team. We could put him just about anywhere on the field and he would compete as one of the better players at that position.”

Charlie Roberts leads the team in hitting with a batting average that approaches .500 so far this summer. All his junior classmates are swinging strong bats as well.

“All our kids that will be juniors were at least spot starters as freshmen,” Foor said. “So we’ve got experience coming back. Brandon (Baioni) has been starting at shortstop for us since he was a freshman. He really hit well for a freshman then got hurt a little bit last year. But he’s back to full strength and he’s swinging it really well now. And Joseph Craft is also swinging a really strong left-handed bat.”

The Bears begin play in a showcase tournament in Little Rock on Thursday. The split-site event takes place at Lamar Porter Field and Curran Conway Field on the campus at UALR.