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Sunday, May 15, 2005

(Photo)
Sikeston senior shortstop J.R. Bizzell fields a groundball.
SIKESTON -- For the eighth straight year, the Sikeston Bulldogs baseball team will carry a No. 1 seed into the district tournament.

But as coach Kevin Self knows, that doesn't automatically translate into a district championship.

Three of the seven times prior to this year Sikeston was upset in the district tournament. That's why Self is trying to keep his team humble and focused on one game at a time heading into the Class 3, District 1 Tournament which starts tomorrow at VFW Stadium.

The Bulldogs open with eighth-seeded Fredericktown at 12:30 p.m.

"Seeds are nice, but they don't mean anything -- it just means you had a good regular season," said Self, whose team has been the top seed every year since '98. "Now it's the postseason and we come in 0-0 like everybody else. Everybody's got the same chance going into the district. You've got to win three games and you've got to win them one at a time. And right now all we're looking at is Fredericktown.

(Photo)
Sikeston's Cullen DeHart takes a cut at a ball earlier this season.
"We've got a good chance to go to the postseason again, but you've got to win them one at a time. We're playing out best baseball of the year and the last two games have proven that. We beat an awfully good Jackson team up there and they're one of the better teams in the area. We feel like we're ready."

Sikeston has won four district championships under Self, including three in the last four years.

Graduation hit the Bulldogs hard last year and many thought the team would be in a rebuilding stage.

But the team hasn't missed a beat as they formed one of the top teams in Southeast Missouri with a 17-5 regular season record and a No. 6 ranking in Class 3.

Much can be attributed to a solid group of nine seniors.

The team's success surprised even Self.

"This bunch has had a really good regular season --

better than I expected," said Self. "We are senior-dominant and senior-led and they've been with me for four years. I feel good about this group. They know what to expect and they know how I want to play. I like our chances, especially here. We play so much better on our own field."

The Bulldogs have beaten teams with a pitching staff that has four capable starters and a defense that can make difficult plays look routine.

Sikeston's four hurlers -- Cullen DeHart, Ross Merideth, Bryce Wibbenmeyer and Jerod Scott --

all have at least 29 innings pitched this year. Those four, along with one five-inning no-hitter from Garland Hemphill, have a collective earned run average of 1.83. They also have combined for 110 strikeouts to only 28 walks.

Merideth has the team's top record at 6-0 followed by DeHart at 4-1. DeHart has the lowest ERA at 1.24.

"I've got four guys I feel like can get people out, especially if our defense plays," said Self. "And our defense has played pretty well for the most part all year. We've made the routine plays and you've got to do that."

But in addition to pitching and defense, Sikeston's offense has been the biggest surprise of all with a team batting average of .359.

"You can have the best pitching in the district, but if you don't swing the bats come district time you will not win," said Self. "I've never seen a team win 1-0 every game and go on. I know it can happen, but it's extremely rare."

The table-setter for the Bulldog offense has been J.R. Bizzell, who leads the team with a .506 average. He has 10 extra-base hits, including five triples and has scored a team-high 36 runs and stolen a team-high 11 bases.

DeHart leads the team with six home runs and 32 RBIs while batting .435. Junior Tyler Baker is hitting .477 with five home runs, 30 RBIs and a team-

high 10 doubles and 14 walks.

Senior Richard Landers checks in with a .349 average and 22 RBIs and Merideth is also over .300 with a .318 mark and 15 RBIs.

Others in the starting lineup with more than 60 at-bats are sophomore Josh Jackson (.281, 3 HR, 20 RBI), senior Matt Limbaugh (.294, 2 HR, 17 RBI) and senior Eric Chappell (.258, 11 RBI).

Senior Ryan Dicus is hitting .471 in 17 at-bats this year.

Wibbenmeyer, Cody Black (.300 in 20 at-bats), Zach Brooks (4-for-5 on the season), Andrew Box (2-for-5), Hemphill (1-4) and Scott (8 RBIs) all could see at-bats in a pinch.

Fifth-seeded New Madrid County Central (6-9) will open district play against No. 4 Kennett following the Sikeston game at 2:30.

NMCC has a team batting average of .312 led by junior Thomas Higgerson's .441 mark with 11 RBIs.

Senior Ryan Lawrence is batting .425 with a pair of home runs and 11 RBIs. Junior Jordan Kimball is batting .404 with two homers and seven RBIs.

The Eagles also boast a pitching staff with four quality starters in Kimball, Lawrence and Higgerson.

"Our chances are as good as anybody's," said NMCC coach John Jones. "Ryan's going to throw our first game and Jordan will get another chance at Sikeston in the second game. When he's on he's probably one of the best in this area. Who knows, if we get by them then we're in the championship game.

"Still you've got to go through the defending champions. We've got to play our best for three games. Sikeston's still one of the elite teams up there, but you've got Notre Dame which has beaten them twice and they won the conference tournament. So it's anybody's district."

On the other side of the bracket, third-seeded Notre Dame will play No. 6 Doniphan at 4:30 p.m. and second-seeded Dexter will take on No. 7 Perryville at 6:30 p.m.

Notre Dame is the only team in the district to have beaten Sikeston, and they've done it twice in the last two weeks. Sikeston did hand Notre Dame a loss earlier in the season.

"I think the first round's going to be as tough as the third round," said Notre Dame coach Jeff Graviett. "You've got a lot of quality teams. We know absolutely nothing about Doniphan which always scares you. Dexter's beat us this year and Kennett's always a solid ballclub with a deep pitching staff. But Sikeston's still the favorite. They're still on top of the district. Somebody's got to dethrone them at their place."

Sikeston is hosting the district tournament for the first time since 1999. But even bigger than that, according to Self, is the fact that his team will be the home team on the scoreboard in every game as well.

"That's a big advantage -- that is the one thing that's nice about being the top seed," said Self. "So we'll get the last at-bat every game and that's what you want. Sometimes it's not what you have, it's what everybody else has got. Sometimes I've had really good teams, but the competition was even better and we didn't win. You can't take anybody for granted. When we get to this point in the year, we expect to win. If we're going to get beat, we'll just get beat by a better club. But we go in expecting to win."