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Friday, Aug. 26, 2016

E.P. ready for first playoff game since '95

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

East Prairie senior Preston Shoemaker is one of the top pitchers.
EAST PRAIRIE -- The East Prairie Eagles make a long-awaited return to a state baseball sectional when they contest the Scott City Rams today at East Prairie.

The Eagles claimed the Class 2, District 1 title with a 12-7 win over South Pemiscot, their first championship since the 1995 season.

A common thread for the Eagles is that current head coach Jason Aycock was a senior starter on that '95 squad.

"It's been a great season," said Aycock, whose Eagles are 19-2. "It's been a privilege to coach a group as talented as these guys are. There's no such thing as great coaching when you have great athletes like this."

One of the team leaders is senior Ben Walters, the Scott-Mississippi Conference Player of the Year. Walters is the ace of a quality pitching staff and leads the team in hitting with an astronomic .506 average. He's also the top run producer with 34 RBIs. Walters doubles as the starting shortstop when not on the mound.

The pitching corps includes right-handers Preston Shoemaker and Caleb Hatton and left-hander Zach Secoy.

"Our pitching staff has carried us this year," said Aycock. "Leading the charge is Ben (Walters). He gives us a good foundation to start with and Preston (Shoemaker) has come in, really stepped his game up from last year and is throwing the ball really well for us. He threw that district championship game down in South Pemiscot and did a great job. Then there's Zach (Secoy) and, when he's on, he's as good as anybody we've got. Then you come in with Caleb Hatton and it's hard to go wrong with any of them."

The Eagles haven't settled on a starter for today's game, which has a 4:30 p.m start time.

Said Aycock, "It's a tossup right now. We really haven't made a decision yet. We're still trying to see what will put us in the best situation to win the game."

On the offensive side of the ball, the Eagles have six players in the lineup hitting .325 or better.

"One thing you need in baseball is consistency and that's what our offense has been all year long," Aycock said. "A pitcher has to focus on everybody we've got because all of them have contributed in some form or fashion."

Following Walter's team-leading stats, catcher and clean-up hitter Danny Bright is not far behind, hitting a robust .491 with a team-leading three home runs.

The versatile Shoemaker, who also plays shortstop and third base, is hitting at a .438 clip, while center fielder Hunter Jones is at .421.

Taylor White, who gets time at first and third base, has a .380 average and right fielder Tyler Branum hits .325.

Rounding out the starting lineup are second baseman William O'Guinn at .286, Secoy at .275 and left fielder Hatton at .250.

East Prairie has shown an ability to diversify its offensive attack.

Said Aycock, "It's according to how the game is going. At times we've had to manufacture runs, but the majority of the time we've just been really aggressive (at the plate and on the basepaths). I would characterize our offense as aggressive."

In the visiting dugout, the Scott City Rams, the third seed in Class 2, District 2, posted a stirring 4-3 comeback win over No. 6 Charleston in the first round and went on to defeat No. 2 Crystal City and fifth-seeded St. Vincent 9-7 for the championship.

The Rams, a member of the strong SEMO Conference, comes in with a rather lackluster 10-9 record, but don't be fooled. The Rams finished strong, winning nine of their last 11 ballgames.

"Scott City plays a tough schedule," said Aycock. "My hat's off to them because every win they get, they have to really battle for it."

Aycock anticipates either senior right-hander Mark Johnston or junior left-

hander Andy Stephens will get the starting nod for the Rams.

"Whoever they throw at us, we'll be ready for 'em," said Aycock. "At this point in the season, I don't think either team is going to face anything that they haven't seen."

Neither team has seen the other firsthand, however, as the regular-season game between the two was cancelled after a rainout.

As to what the Eagles may expect from the Mike Umfleet-coached Rams, Aycock said, "Coach Umfleet is a terrific baseball coach. He is a very fundamental guy and I expect him to play a lot of small ball with us and that's what we're preparing for.

"He's going to have his guys ready and I look forward to coaching against Mike."

The game will be played at East Prairie's H.A. Jones Field, located at 309 Mill Rd., which may give the Eagles a slight edge.

"Home field is always a big plus and I think it does give a team an advantage," said Aycock. "I think home-field advantage will play a big part in this game. Our field is hard to play on. The infield's rough and the outfield, as well. Practicing on it every day and playing on it all the time gives us a little bit of an edge because we know how it plays, but, when it comes down to it, you've still got to field groundballs and throw the guy out.

"Crowd-wise, Scott City has some great fans. They're going to bring a great fan base, but there is no better fan than the East Prairie fan. They follow us wherever we go, win or lose."

The winning team advances to the quarterfinal round of eight against the winner of the sectional contest between state-ranked Clearwater and Steelville.