NEW MADRID -- New Madrid County Central appears to be well-armed for the 2006 baseball season.
According to coach John Jones, 17 of his 29-player roster can pitch.
"Out of our starting nine, seven are legitimate pitchers," said Jones. "I've got the luxury this year of not having to worry about one or two or three kids having to carry the load. We've got some great young kids out there and I've also been blessed with six left-handed pitchers this year.
"We won't have to wear anybody down. Lots of time, you get started good and you just seem to wear those arms down by district time. Hopefully, we can cut some back or at least cut down on their pitches per game."
The Eagles, coming off a 6-10 record and fourth-place finish in the SEMO Conference in 2005, look solid with three all-district performers returning.
Senior Jordan Kimball, who has signed to play baseball at Arkansas State University, will play shortstop and take turns on the mound.
Last season, the slick-fielding Kimball led the team in runs scored with 16, tied for the team lead in RBIs with 11 and was second in batting average at .404. He also led the Eagles in home runs with two.
"I think the pressure's off him," said Jones. "He's come in, been loose and been a real joy to coach. You can tell the difference in his mentality. He's here to have fun, show what he can do and get ready for bigger and better things."
Senior center fielder/pitcher Thomas Higgerson, also an all-district choice, led the Eagles with a .441 average and shared the RBI lead with 11.
"He's gotten a lot stronger and is seeing the ball well," Jones said. "He's going to have an outstanding year."
Third baseman Dylan Harris was voted to the all-district team as a sophomore and has shown marked improvement in preseason workouts.
Said Jones, "His arm has gotten much stronger and he'll flat knock it down at third base and get it across the diamond."
Harris, who will also see mound duty, hit for a .347 average last season with eight RBIs and one home run.
Rounding out the Eagles' starting lineup are junior first baseman Trey Sullinger, sophomore second baseman Landon Lingle, junior right fielder Woody Smelser, senior left fielder Colt Pruitt and senior catcher Andy Gantner.
Right-hander Matt Whiteside, a junior, will open the season on the hill for the Eagles.
Jones likes the versatility and experience of this Eagle squad.
"They're all multi-talented and can play a lot of positions," he said. "We've got a boatload of experience coming back and I couldn't ask for any better work ethic than these kids have given me. They come early and they love to stay late."
Top reserves will be sophomore catcher Matt Carter ("dandy little catcher"), sophomore shortstop/pitcher Kyle Marshall, sophomore first baseman/
pitcher Josh St. Mary ("big, strong kid who looks like a senior, size-wise"), freshman second baseman Clint Tanner, freshman third baseman/pitcher Sean Thomason ("rocket for an arm, already throwing in low 80s") and freshman pitcher Matt Williams ("tall, rangy kid with plenty of pop on his fastball").
Jones is ecstatic about a group of nine talented freshmen.
"They can go," he said. "I'm really looking forward to watching this JV bunch play. I want them to see what it's like at this level. We've put a lot on them, but they're taking it in."
Offensively, Jones expects last year's team batting average of .314 to improve dramatically this season.
"I think we can bump that up to .360-.375, if this spring is any indication of how we're going to hit the ball," he said. "If we can be patient, find our pitch, then we're going to be able to put it in play and make the defenses work."
Jones said a new attitude infusion at NMCC has carried over to the baseball team.
"It started in football--started winning again, then they turned it around in basketball," he said. "Things are on a positive note around here right now, getting back in that groove and getting that swagger back. The kids are confident and, this year, if adversity does strike, we'll be able to put it behind us and take care of business.
"We're looking to right the ship and win some ballgames this year."
Jones sees a tough SEMO Conference race with Notre Dame, new member Kennett, Poplar Bluff and Jackson being strong contenders for the championship.
Added Jones, "And Sikeston is going to be Sikeston. I don't care how many they (players) lose, they're going to be a good ballclub, but if I had to give a No. 1 seed, it would probably be Jackson."