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Friday, Aug. 26, 2016

Sikeston wants to continue dominance

Sunday, March 20, 2005

J.R. Bizzell
SIKESTON -- The Sikeston Bulldogs baseball team may have graduated its best class ever, but that doesn't mean the cupboard is bare for the 2005 season.

The Class of 2004 posted a four-year record of 93-14 with three state final four appearances.

But virtually the entire offense is gone from last year's 27-2 team, including Los Angeles Dodgers first round draft pick Blake DeWitt, and Division I signees Jacob Priday and Lance Rhodes.

Still, Bulldog coach Kevin Self returns a lineup that features nine seniors, including three starters.

"We've got three or four guys that played every game last year, but they were complementary players," said Self. "They didn't have to be the premier players or get the big hit. If they did, it was icing on the cake. They didn't have to deal with a lot of pressure. This year we're going to be searching for those go-to guys that we can count on to drive in the big runs."

Richard Landers
One senior that Self is counting on is Cullen DeHart. The left-hander has dropped almost 60 pounds and now weighs a sturdy 235.

"I really look for Cullen to have a breakout year," said Self. "If he's able to relax and stay off of himself and not try to place too much on his shoulders, he's liable to have a tremendous offensive year. He's so much more agile at first base."

DeHart hit .333 last year with a pair of home runs and 24 RBIs. But, perhaps more importantly, DeHart will be able to pitch again after he was recovering from Tommy John surgery last year.

As a sophomore, DeHart was 7-0 on the mound in 36 2/3 innings. He posted a 0.95 earned run average while striking out 35 and walking eight.

If DeHart can return to form on the mound, the Bulldogs could have a solid pitching staff with the return of Ross Merideth and Bryce Wibbenmeyer.

Bryce Wibbenmeyer
Merideth was 5-0 last year with a microscopic 0.56 ERA in 25 innings. He struck out 30 and walked just two. Wibbenmeyer was 5-1 with a 1.43 ERA in 34 1/3 innings, striking out 24 and walking 14.

"I feel like we've got some experience on the staff -- guys that can throw strikes and get people out," said Self. "Right now we're kind of in that rebuilding mode where you're looking for those guys that are unproven."

Others that could see some time on the mound are Garland Hemphill, who was 1-0 in 1 2/3 innings pitched last year, sophomore Jerod Scott and junior Cody Black.

"We've got four quality starters," said Self. "We're not going to have anybody that can come in and just blow you away. But we really haven't had that the past few years either."

The Bulldogs also appear to be solid on defense where they return sharp glovemen like seniors J.R. Bizzell and Richard Landers.

Bizzell, who played second base last year, will move to shortstop while Landers, a third baseman last year, will be moved to second.

Scott will get the first shot at third base while DeHart will play first. Eric Chappell returns to left field. Matt Limbaugh will take over in centerfield and Self will look to sophomore Josh Jackson to play right field.

"Defensively, I feel like we can catch it if they hit it to us. We'll kick a few, but for the most part, fundamentally we'll be pretty good defensively," said Self. "Limbaugh's made the jump to centerfield and he's gotten faster and he's tracking balls a lot better than he did last year."

Merideth will take care of most of the catching duties. When he pitches, Self will look to Chappell or Scott.

Offensively, Bizzell will look to pick up where he left off last year. After a slow start, he finished with a .323 average with seven extra base hits.

Landers is also capable with the bat. Although he only hit .219 last year with 18 RBIs, as a sophomore he batted .356 with 20 RBIs.

Merideth hit .313 in 32 at-bats while Limbaugh hit .286 in 21 at-bats, while providing a few clutch hits early in the season.

"We're not going to be flashy and we're going to have to manufacture runs," said Self. "We're going to have to score runs when we get the opportunities. We may have to put it in play and move runners over and get them in. We can't sit back and wait for the three-run homer like we could last year."

Chappell was used mainly as a defensive player, but he was 3-of-6 with three runs and two walks when he did go to the plate.

Hemphill was 1-3 with two runs last year.

Junior Tyler Baker will play mostly as the designated hitter, but he can also play first or third base. Self says Baker along with DeHart could have home run power.

"We're trying to find somebody that can step up and consistently hit the ball with authority," said Self. "It'll be a struggle scoring runs early for us. Hopefully as the year wears on we'll get some guys to step up and we'll get the job done. It's unfair to expect what we did last year. That's unrealistic and it's not fair to the kids. We just need to figure out what our personality is.

"I feel like 1-through-9 we can put the ball in play. Now whether we can put it in play consistently with authority, I don't know. But we'll be able to put the bat on the ball. I don't think we'll go down swinging a lot. We'll make defenses make plays."

Off the bench, Self will have seniors Ryan Dicus and Hemphill and juniors Andrew Box, Zach Brooks and Black.

Under Self, the Bulldogs have won four district championships, including three in the last four years.

His teams won before the DeWitt era, and now he's hoping they will win afterwards.

Self is entering his eighth year as the Sikeston coach, posting a record of 159-37 with five straight 20-win seasons and three final four appearances.

Whether or not this senior-loaded team can carry on that tradition remains to be seen.

"A lot of these kids know what it takes to win," said Self. "They just haven't had to shoulder the responsibility -- someone else has always done that for them. I really feel like my senior class is a good group. We've got nine seniors and that's a lot and four of those started most of the time.

"I think we'll contend for a district championship. It won't be handed over and we won't walk through the district, but I think we'll contend and we'll fight for it."

The Bulldogs open the season Tuesday by hosting Notre Dame at 4 p.m.