By Joshua Price/Sports Editor
Etowah County baseball teams will have some tough competition in 2011. Comprised of Westbrook Christian, West End, Sand Rock, Pleasant Valley and Ohatchee, Area 13 is arguably one of the toughest areas in Class 2A.
Westbrook finished the 2011 season with an impressive 26-10 record, before losing in the quarterfinals of the state playoffs to eventual state champion Alabama Christian Academy of Tuscaloosa.
The Warriors will return a host of position players to this year’s club.
The Warriors will be without the service of all-star catcher and power-hitter Jacob Mayfield. Jacob was not the only influential Mayfield on last year’s team.
Westbrook head coach Matt Kennedy said that Jacob was not the only influential Mayfield on last year’s team.
“John has been out there at shortstop for us since his freshman season,” Westbrook head coach Matt Kennedy said. “He has played under his brother’s shadow but now I think we will see him step up and have a great senior season. He is a veteran on our team and we will ask him to step up and take on a great leadership void left by his brother.”
Matt Reeves returns for his fourth year in the starting infield for Westbrook. The junior third baseman will play a key role in the Warriors’ offense and defense.
“Matthew is a veteran on our squad,” Westbrook head coach Matt Kennedy said. “He has been starting on the varsity since the eighth grade and has great leadership ability and knowledge of the game. Having two returning veterans will definitely help left side of our infield.
“Matthew is a vital part of our offense. He will probably hit in the 2 or 3 hole and be a productive RBI guy. He has good bat speed and control, and can drive the ball, hit and run, or lay down a bunt to move guys around. He is very versatile offensively and I look for him to have a great season.”
Kennedy is confident that the Warriors’ pitching staff will be one of the strong points in 2011, which will be absent of longtime starter Barr Miller.
“John [Mayfield] has a great changeup to compliment his fastball,” Kennedy said. “John focuses on location, which makes his breaking pitch more effective.”
Kennedy said junior fireballer Mikhail Cazenauve should have a great season.
“Mikhail is throwing the ball well. His fastball has picked up a little speed since fall-ball and we expect a lot of innings out of him this year.”
Other players Kennedy will put on the mound this spring include Blaine Beard, Jake Miller and Jake Kilgo. Kennedy mentioned transfer David McHaffey as a possible staffer.
“David transferred from Andalusia this year. We’re not real sure about what he can do just yet, but he looked good in tryouts. We are eager to see what he can do in a game situation.”
Kennedy said Kilgo, Cazenhauve and Clay Templeton will cover outfielding duties when not on the mound. Kennedy rates all three players as having great footspeed and strong arms.
West End finished the 2011 season 15-11, losing in the opening round of the playoffs in three games to Ider.
Head coach Chad Hall is preparing for his sixteenth season as the Patriots’ skipper.
Hall, like Kennedy, will sport the luxury of a veteran squad this season. Hall said the Pats’ strength will be in its defense.
“We have six position players returning from last year’s team,” Hall said. “With all our guys returning, defense will be the key for our success.”
Skylar McCright, Logan Moore and Micah Moore are the returning seniors for West End. Juniors Caleb Mayo and Ryan Mashburn are also key players for the Patriots.
Hall said a key to the Pats’ defense will be in its catcher, Logan Moore.
“Logan handles the game well and will do a good job this season managing it from the field. Defensively, he blocks the ball well. His release and arm-strength are much improved since last season. If his hitting continues to improve, he should be a solid catcher.”
Unlike Kennedy, Hall showed concern for his pitching situation, which will be without the services of graduated ace Kyle Fulenwider.
“My only concern with this team right now is pitching. I’m just wondering how many people can step up and give us good, effective innings on the mound.
Hall said McCright will pitch lots of innings this season.
“Skyler throws strikes very well. He can locate his fastball well and he can throw a great splitter, which is his strikeout pitch.”
Hall said the side-winding Mashburn is another key staffer.
“Ryan pitched a lot for us last year. He is experienced as a starter and also as a reliever. He pitched well in the summer and fall leagues. He’s grown up a lot since last season and I expect him to pitch well.”
Hall is confident that West End’s new pitching coach, former Patriot ace Joe Payne, will have immediate effect on the team. Hall is excited about Payne’s return to Walnut Grove.
“Joe will bring discipline to the pitchers. He brings college experience and has learned so much since I coached him (1998-2001). He has a plan for the pitchers. He knows how many pitches he wants from each one and knows what kind of pitches to look for out of them. He has his own ideas, which I like, that were not my expertise as a player. He will have free reign over the pitchers and will call the pitches during the game.”
Mayo is one of the top overall players in the county. The junior shortstop hits for power, base hits and has as much speed as any player in the state.
Hall said having Mayo in the lineup is vital to the team’s ability to score runs.
“Caleb will always have the green-light when he is on base or running the bases,” Hall said. “He has great speed and his ability to steal bases or leg-out doubles and triples makes the middle of our lineup even better. We expect as much out of him this year as we did last year.”
Hall said the Pats’ will rely on a hit-and-run style of baseball.
“We will play a lot of small-ball this year, which is no surprise. With our overall team speed, we will take every advantage of manufacturing runs. If we have to bunt runners over, then that’s what we’re gonna do.”
Hall said the Pats will make a few adjustments in the outfield, which will feature many new faces when Mashburn is on the mound.
“Braxton Dowdy started for us in the playoffs last year against Ider. He runs well and covers centerfield good. Dakota Nichols is coming out this year and will be a tremendous help to us in the outfield. I also expect Devin Watkins to step up and play a lot of innings in the outfield.
Hall expects a close race in Area 13 this season.
“Westbrook has got many good athletes and will be tough again this year,” Hall said. “I expect Pleasant Valley will be much improved this year. Area 13 as a whole should be a good race.”
Kennedy said winning in March will be the most important for each area team, as the entire area schedule is slated for that month.
“It’s possible that we will find out early where everybody stands in the area. We play West End the second week of March and that could very well set the tone for the area standings. Whoever wins that series probably has a leg-up on the rest of the area. I believe the second week matchups will determine who will be in first place and who will be runner-up in the area.”