(David Jenkins, Staff)
SIKESTON - If preseason rankings mean anything, then the Sikeston Bulldogs baseball team will have another banner year in 2002.
Ranked No. 2 in the preseason state poll in Class 3A, Sikeston will have a target on its back for most of the year.
The Bulldogs, which took second in the state last year with a 22-6 record, return plenty of talent to legitimize such a lofty ranking.
But head coach Kevin Self isn't getting too excited too soon.
"Obviously expectations are high," said head coach Kevin Self. "But last year was last year. If we think we're pretty good and if we think people are going to lay down for us -- that's the wrong attitude. If they'll work and do the same things we did last year then I see no reason why we can't be just as successful as we were last year."
The Bulldogs return 3/4 of the infield, some experienced pitching, and on paper, a dangerous offense, despite the loss of two all-staters in Kent Chappell and Bobby Landers.
The top returning offensive player from last year is sophomore third baseman Blake DeWitt, who, as a freshman, led the club in many offensive categories including runs (38), hits (51), doubles (15) and at-bats (112). He also batted .455 with 30 runs batted in.
DeWitt was named to the Missouri High School Baseball Coaches Association all-state team.
He followed up that up with an unbelievable junior legion campaign last summer where he drove in 70 runs in 53 games with a .568 average and just two strikeouts in 177 plate appearances.
Also returning is senior shortstop Adam Garrett and senior second baseman Jamie Puckett.
"The top of our lineup's not going to change," said Self. "You've got Adam Garrett, Blake and Jamie. That's one, two and three from last year, so they'll probably be penciled in pretty much every day. There's no doubt those three had good years. But I don't want them to get caught up in numbers. We just want to be successful as a club."
Garrett batted .364 with 36 runs and 16 RBIs last year as the leadoff man. He has already signed a letter of intent to play baseball at the University of Missouri next year.
Puckett batted .354 with 36 runs, 22 RBIs and five triples last year.
The two are also considered one of the best infield defensive duos in the area.
"Adam and Jamie turned a ton of double plays last year," said Self. "They got us out of jams many times by turning two."
Senior Chris Cota also returns after a solid junior year where he batted .413 with 21 runs and 18 RBIs.
He's also an battle-tested pitcher after going 5-5 with a 3.12 earned run average in 58 1/3 innings pitched.
"Obviously, Cota has got the most experience," said Self. "He threw at the state championship game, he won the quarterfinal game here to get us to the final four. He's got a lot of experience."
Pitching is an area that Self will need to address after losing Landers, who went 10-1 with a 2.01 ERA in 73 innings pitched.
After Cota, the top candidates are Puckett, DeWitt and sophomore Lance Rhodes.
Puckett threw just 11 1/3 innings last year, but he went 2-0 with a 1.85 ERA. DeWitt was 3-0 with a 2.33 ERA in 18 innings and Rhodes didn't allow an earned run in 10 2/3 innings while picking up one victory.
Sophomore Scotty Keenan could also get some time on the mound. He was 6-2 with a 2.02 ERA in 52 innings during the junior legion season.
"Jamie Puckett has proven he can pitch," said Self. "He had a one-hitter last year but he's had some arm trouble. So we're going to try to bring him along real slow so we don't hurt that arm early. DeWitt has thrown in big games throughout his career coming up in national tournaments. He threw a great game up there against a really good Farmington team. I look for good things out of our pitching staff and for the guys that have been around."
At catcher, sophomore Jacob Priday will be asked to fill the shoes of Chappell.
"Kent had a great year last year and I'm not asking Jacob to have the year that Kent had," said Self. "He mainly needs to just do the job behind the plate defensively and manage our pitching staff. I look for good things out of Jacob and I'm excited about having him for three more years."
First base will be manned by Deere this year after he played there some last year. Deere provides tremendous power at the plate and a steady glove.
In the outfield the Bulldogs return juniors Drew Lawrence and Josh Monroe who both gained valuable experience last year on the varsity.
Rounding out the rest of the outfield will be Keenan, sophomore Nathan Eaves and Rhodes.
But even though Self is counting on five sophomores, he is confident in their abilities.
"They're not typical sophomores -- they are all ready for this role," said Self. "If we hadn't had the players and the good seniors that we had last year, some of these sophomores would probably have played as freshmen. That's how good they are."
Juniors Adam Miller, Ben Anderson, Luke Jackson and Brandon Eldridge will provide plenty of quality depth for the Bulldogs.
Self feels with that kind of depth, and the returning talent from last year, his team could put runs on the scoreboard in bunches.
"We're not going to have an easy out in the bunch," said Self. "Every person in our lineup is going to be able to hit the ball and hit it with some authority. I think that's key, that's one of the reasons we had so much success last year. Everybody 1-through-9, can get a big hit and drive in a big run. And that's what I like about our team -- we don't have to have just one guy drive in all the runs. It can be a different guy in our lineup every single day."
One area where the Bulldogs weren't strong last year was on the basepaths. Self thinks that is an area of improvement this year.
"I think our team speed is better this year," said Self. "You've got guys like Nathan Eaves, Scotty Keenan, Lance Rhodes and Priday, they all run extremely well. Plus the guys we've got returning all have good speed."
Garrett, Puckett and Cota have all played varsity ball since they were sophomores so Self thinks senior leadership won't be much of a problem.
"The biggest thing we lost last year was leadership," said Self. "Right now we're trying to find ourselves and trying to work out who the leaders are. It's always been our seniors and I think nothing less this year. I think our senior leadership will step right in and do a good job."
The schedule this year remains virtually the same with the exception of the Nettleton (Ark.) Round Robin early in the season which will give the Bulldogs a full slate.
"This is the first year we've had a full schedule," said Self. "We've got three tournaments and 14 games, so according to regulations that's a full schedule, which is the first time that's happened since I've been here."
So with so many returning starters, but question marks at some key positions, what are Self's expectations this year?
"Our goals are the same as last year; we want to win the conference, we want to win the district, and we want to go to the final four and win a state title," said Self. "That's the only reason we play, to win a state title. That's our goal. But you can't overlook each step."