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Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016

High hopes for Sikeston baseball

Sunday, March 23, 2003

Top returning players are lance Rhodes (4), Blake DeWitt (6) Jacob Priday (bottom left) and Drew Lawrence (20).
SIKESTON - With six returning starters from last year's 21-4 unit, the Sikeston Bulldogs baseball team has high expectations once again.

Sikeston enters the season ranked No. 4 in Class 3 after a fourth place finish at state last year.

With the majority of the pitching and many key offensive players returning, head coach Kevin Self is hoping for third consecutive trip to Columbia.

"My expectations are the same as they've been the last two years -- and that's pretty high," said Self. "We want to win the conference, win the district, and then you want to not only get to the Final Four, but you want to win it. Our goals are set pretty high, we want to win a state title. It's as simple as that."

The top returning player is junior all-state infielder Blake DeWitt, who has been starting since he was a freshman. He led the team in most offensive categories last season, batting .458 with 31 runs batted in and 38 runs scored.

With the graduation of Adam Garrett, DeWitt will move from third base to shortstop this season.

Self says an off-season weight-lifting program has helped DeWitt's speed and strength.

"He's lost some weight and he's gotten a lot stronger," said Self. "I think people are going to be surprised to watch him play. He is a lot faster and quicker than he's been in the past. And he's really hitting the ball. He's been hitting some shots out of there with a wooden bat. I'd hate to see what he's going to do when he starts swinging an aluminum bat. I would expect more power out of him."

Also returning is catcher Jacob Priday who burst onto the scene last year as a sophomore with a big offensive year.

He hit .427 with a team-leading 34 RBIs and 31 runs scored. He also led the team with 17 extra-base hits.

Drew Lawrence, the only returning senior that started last year, will be moved from left field to third base.

He batted .317 with 22 RBIs and 20 runs scored last year.

"I look for Drew Lawrence to have a big year as a senior," said Self. "Traditionally here in the last few years our seniors have had really good years. That's why we've gone to the Final Four."

Junior Lance Rhodes is the team's top hurler, going 6-1 with a 1.43 earned run average last year in 58 2/3 innings. He struck out 56 and walked 31.

When he's not pitching he will handle shortstop, third base and some outfield.

Rhodes batted .311 with 16 RBIs last season.

DeWitt is the team's No. 2 pitcher after going 8-0 with a 2.50 ERA. He struck out 58 and walked eight in 50 1/3 innings.

"One of them is going to play short when the other pitches," said Self of Rhodes and DeWitt. "Lance has looked really good at short. His range is better, he's faster and stronger."

Junior Nathan Eaves started in right field last year as he batted .344 with 15 RBIs and 16 runs scored. He is one of the fastest players on the team.

Junior Scotty Keenan, who started first base the second half of the season last year, will be moved to the outfield and will get some more time on the mound.

The left-handed Keenan only threw six innings last year, but he recorded a win and struck out five.

Self says his power has increased and his arm strength is better.

Senior Adam Miller has some big shoes to fill as he will take over the second base position from graduated all-stater Jamie Puckett.

Miller had three hits in only 15 at-bats last year but he is considered a good defensive player with good range.

Sophomore Richard Landers could also see some time at second base.

Junior Brad Deere, who went 1-for-3 in a brief varsity stint last year, will take over the left field position.

Junior Zach Fayette and sophomore Cullen DeHart will both play first base.

DeHart, a left-hander, will also get some time on the mound.

"With Scotty and Cullen DeHart that gives me two left-handers that I've never had," said Self. "I never had even one until last year."

Self said sophomore Bryce Wibbenmeyer and Lawrence, who picked up a win in four innings of work last year, will also pitch this year.

Seniors Luke Jackson and Brandon Eldridge and sophomore Ross Merideth all give Self some quality depth.

"We've got some big holes that were left from last year, but our program is kind of to the point where usually there'll be some kids step into those holes and fill those," said Self. "We expect that to happen again this year."

With only one senior with a lot of playing time returning, Self is expecting his talented junior class to be the leaders of the team.

"These juniors really had to grow up in a hurry last year as sophomores," said Self. "Blake's been to two Final Fours and he's played in the championship game. A lot of these guys have played in pressure situations and that's why they've done well."

The Bulldogs have a revamped schedule this year with the addition of the Reidland Wooden Bat Tournament and regular season games with St. Dominick, East Carter County and Clearwater.

Sikeston dropped out of the Greene County Tech Tournament, an even the Bulldogs had won the last four years.

Another highlight on the schedule will be the SEMO Conference Tournament the first week of May.

There is a new face in the district this year with the addition of Notre Dame. The school was bumped up a classification after the private school multiplier was passed.

It will add even more to an already brutal district that includes perennial contenders Kennett and Dexter.

"It'll be a good tournament but that's the way you like it," said Self. "You want them tough, you don't want them easy. Maybe not as tough as last year when you've got to win it on a bases loaded walk in the 10th inning."

Sikeston will open the season at home on Tuesday when they host Notre Dame at VFW Stadium at 4 p.m.

The Bulldogs will follow that up with another home game on Wednesday against Kelly at 4 p.m.

Sikeston has won 20 or more games for three straight years and they have reached the Final Four two years in a row.

So Self knows his team will always have a target on its back.

"What we've done the last couple of years, when we're on somebody's schedule, we're going to get their best," said Self. "We're going to get their best hurler and probably their best game, so you can't let up on anybody."