NEW MADRID -- New Madrid County Central's baseball team opens the 2002 season on Tuesday at Caruthersville.
The Eagles lost six starters off last year's 14-11 squad, leaving many holes to fill and questions to answer.
"Expectations are always high, but realistically, we're going to be a young ballclub," said NMCC coach John Jones. "We're going to be struggling, especially in the conference we just joined."
The Eagles will play in the powerful SEMO Conference for the first time, going up against the area's top heavyweight teams like Sikeston, Chaffee, Notre Dame and Cape Central.
To make things more difficult, NMCC has to replace its entire infield, with the exception of shortstop Jake Kimball.
"First, second, third and the person on the mound will be totally new," said Jones. "We've got some good kids. If we can keep the mental mistakes down and play like we're capable of playing, I think we are going to be pretty successful."
NMCC will look for leadership out of senior catcher Mark Adam Wade. Last season he led the team with a .368 average.
"This will be his fourth year at catcher," said Jones. "He's going to be our field general."
Kimball led the team in home runs and ended with a .345 average last year. He was also the No. 2 pitcher, but will be used in a relief role this season.
In the outfield, multi-sport standout Brian Murph returns at center field. Murph came on strong at the end of last season before suffering a dislocated hip against Poplar Bluff. He finished with .283 average.
"Those three seniors are going to be the ones that either make us or break us," said Jones. "They are going to have to be supportive and not critical of their new supporting cast."
On the mound, NMCC will look to sophomore Chris Nance (6-2, 170), Ben Strickland and Zack Dees. Brandon Fields will also see time on the hill.
"We're looking at 14 sophomores, and probably six of those guys are going to have to step up," said Jones. "Mark Adam Wade will also pitch some. Hopefully that will get us through."
NMCC's first conference game will be next Thursday at Dexter. "We've really been getting after it since the first day of practice," said Jones. "Hopefully we can put a few wins together."
EAST PRAIRIE -- East Prairie opens the 2002 baseball season on Monday, hosting Puxico at 4 p.m.
"We're expecting an improvement from last year," said East Prairie coach Jason Aycock. "We're going to be a little better defensively, and we have a little more pitching depth than we've had. However, we're still going to be a young team."
The Eagles lost two key players off last year's 5-14 team. Cody Archie was the team's top pitcher, and outfielder Colby Archie was one of the top offensive threats. This season junior Matt Boyer enters with the most experience. He will be East Prairie's ace on the mound.
"He's played all his life," said Aycock. "He's going to have to step up. He does have a good stick."
Last year Boyer batted .340 for the Eagles and was the team's catcher.
"His true position is being behind the plate," said Aycock. "But we didn't have an ace, so we had to turn him into a pitcher. He's a good enough athlete to do it."
East Prairie also has high hopes for junior Ryan Gammons, who will play second base. Gammons started both his freshman and sophomore years for the team.
"He's pretty much the leader of the infield," said Aycock. "He keeps everybody going. When he's up at the plate, anything can happen."
Behind Boyer and Gammons, East Prairie's lineup drops sharply. The Eagles are expected to start three freshmen.
"We don't have any key players," said Aycock. "We've just got several average baseball players."