Photo: Members of the Westbrook Christian varsity baseball team gather for a photo during the Etowah County Chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ 2020 Media Day on Feb. 23 at Rainbow Presbyterian Church. Pictured, sitting, from left: Andrew Dutton, Brett Vice, Samuel Dutton. Standing: head coach Matt Kennedy. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
A number of area high school baseball teams participated in the Etowah County Chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ Media Day last Sunday (Feb. 23) at Rainbow Presbyterian Church in Rainbow City.
Local coaches and players shared their thoughts about the 2020 season during the event. Several teams have a few games under their belts, while several others are rescheduling due to wet conditions over the past few weeks.
Class 2A, Area 10 with Gaston and Ohatchee
If sometime during the regular season you happen to ask Westbrook head baseball coach Matt Kennedy what his team’s current record is, chances are that he won’t have an answer. Just like the past several seasons, the only Class 2A teams on the Warriors’ schedule are their four area games.
“Except for our area games, we use the regular season to prepare us for the state playoffs,” he said. “I really don’t care what our record is until the third week of April.”
The 2019 Warriors’ accomplishments included a 23-14 record, an area championship, three playoff series victories and berth in the state championship series for the first time since 2013.
With all but two starters returning, Westbrook’s lineup and pitching staff will be potent, to say the least. It starts with the Dutton brothers, Andrew and Samuel.
As a junior in 2019, Andrew was named Class 2A Hitter of the Year by the Alabama Sports Writers Association. The second baseman batted .443 with an on-base percentage of .603 with 40 hits, 50 RBI, 40 runs, six doubles, four triples and seven home runs. He signed a scholarship with Birmingham Southern earlier this year.
Samuel, who committed to LSU following his freshman year, struck out 110 batters while finishing with an 8-3 record and a miniscule 0.88 earned run average in 63 and two-third innings. Opposing hitters batted a collective .121 average against him. At the plate, he batted .383 with 41 hits, 38 runs, 21 RBI, six doubles, two triples and two home runs.
Both Duttons, along with Joseph Gilchrist, made the ASWA first team. Gilchrist finished with 51 hits, 61 runs scored, 26 RBI, 10 doubles, 17 steals to go along with a .440 batting average.
“These three guys [Andrew Dutton, Samuel Dutton and Brett Vice] have been with me for so long that I know what to expect from them and they know what to expect from me,” said Kennedy. “With Andrew and Brett being seniors, they have to set the standard and set the tone in the dugout and the dressing room. You just have to say ‘Samuel Dutton’ and people know who you’re taking about. But it’s a year-round program for them, and people don’t see the amount of hard work that these three kids put in the offseason, which makes a big difference during the season. I never have to tell any of these guys to get to work. All I have to do is fill out a lineup card.”
“If the pitchers are throwing strikes and filling up the zone, I think that transfers over to our hitters,” said Samuel Dutton. “Hitters feed off momentum just as pitchers do.”
“We have so many guys in the lineup, back to back to back, that if someone’s not having a good day, we have guys that will step in,” said Vice. “As a hitter, just knowing that we have so many [pitchers] who can give us a chance to win, gives us a good mindset.”
“I was talking with [pitching] coach [Brandon] Byers the other day, and he said that we have 11 guys who can go out there and throw,” said Andrew Dutton. “So we know that we can always throw someone out there if someone is struggling.”
Kennedy pointed out that the 2020 dugout will be predominantly upperclassmen. Out of 19 players listed on the varsity roster, 18 are either junior or seniors.
“It’s a really mature dugout without a lot of silliness going on. Consequently, our leadership is really, really good. With that being said, I don’t have to do a whole lot in terms of making sure everyone’s on the same page in terms of accountability and discipline. The two guys who are filling the roles of the two guys that graduated are more than adequate and probably will be better by the end of the year.”
Class 2A, Area 11 with Cleveland, Cold Springs and Southeastern
The Patriots are somewhat thin in terms of upperclassmen with only three seniors but head coach Joe Payne expects his younger players to respond to the challenge.
“We’ve got several ninth and 10th graders who will get thrown into the fire, and we’ll find out pretty quickly if they can handle it.”
West End missed the state playoffs for the first time in several years last season. The Patriots won the area in 2017 and 2018.
“We were really close to winning the area last year, so it really hurt when we didn’t make the playoffs,” said junior Eli Pierce. “We definitely want to get back there this year.”
“We talk all the time about taking care of each day,” said Payne. “If we can do that, we’ll win our area and get back into the playoffs. Talent-wise, I feel that we’re as good as anybody in our area. If we take care of what we can control, we’ll be in good shape.”
Class 3A, Area 12 with Holly Pond, J.B. Pennington and Susan Moore
With a new head coach in Taylor Talbot, the 2020 Yellow Jackets currently are receiving a shot in the arm in terms of excitement and expectations
“We just have to work hard, play together and be a better ball team,” said assistant coach Richard Johnson. “These kids have adapted really well to Coach Talbot’s coaching. He’s done a tremendous job with these kids, and his enthusiasm has really gotten these kids fired up.”
Johnson noted that 1998 was the last time that the program advanced past the first round of the state playoffs, and that the Yellow Jackets goal is to break that 22-year old skid.
“With the guys we’ve got and with the hard work they’ve been putting in, I think that goal can be accomplished,” he said.
“Our motto is “Winning today,” and that’s all we’re focused on,” said junior Bryant Speer.
“We just want to be the best version of ourselves that we can be,” added sophomore Grayson Kellett.
Class 4A, Area 12 with Cherokee County, White Plains and Jacksonville
Coming off a season that included going wire to wire in the regular season as the No. 1 ranked team in Class 4A, a 26-5 record, county and area championships and a second straight berth in the state semifinals, Hokes Bluff is looking to replenish its stock for 2020.
“We lost four really good players, but we do have five starters back,” said head coach Mike Robertson. “We have some new faces in the outfield, but we do have some experience at pitcher and in the infield. The expectations are always there for us. We’ve been the hunter the last few years, and that’s better than being the hunted. Consistency is the big thing that we’ll be looking for this season. We’ve got to give the new guys a chance to develop, and we’ll continue to evaluate until area play starts.
“Since we’ve been there [in the playoffs] we want to get back,” said senior shortstop Caleb McGinnis. “We haven’t had much failure, and we expect to be great. We want our names in the record books along with the other great teams we’ve been a part of.”
Although he appeared in only 20 games in the field last season due to injuries senior pitcher/first baseman Koby Addison made the 2019 All-Messenger team after batting .397 with 25 hits and 21 RBI.
“All of our four years in high school, we’ve been deep in the playoffs, and I think that this year will be no different,” he said.
Class 5A, Area 12 with Southside and Alexandria
Second-year head coach Brandon Johnson expects to incorporate a number of youngsters into important fielding roles this spring. Etowah went 23-6 and made the second round of the Class 5A state playoffs relying on a senior-heavy lineup,
“We’re looking at a lot of new faces this year, and we’ve told our guys that it’s a new team that they have to take ownership of,” said Johnson. “We’ve got some good young players and a few seniors in some key roles. Right now, I feel that our pitching is way ahead of the hitting. We have three really quality starters right now and we’re working on getting some depth in the bullpen. To get those No. 4 and No. 5 guys to close out close out games is critical.”
One of those veterans on the mound is senior Kam Wilson, who last year went 5-2 with a 1.11 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 50 innings.
“Kam was really our guy last year, and he’s a college pitcher. He attacks the hitters and our guys play a little bit better defensively,” said Johnson.
Johnson also singled out seniors Brayden Lowery, Hunter Cox and Mitchell Mabrey.
“We want to win today, not down the road, and to do that we need those seniors on the field. Hunter Cox is one of the only guys that had a lot of playing time last year, and that was at DH, where he put up some good offensive numbers. Hunter’s athletic enough that we needed him out in the field, so he’s making the transition to the outfield.
“This is a fun group that works hard and has brought into what we’re doing. They understand the importance of practice and what you have to do to win. We’re going to challenge these guys and hope that they grow and keep getting better every day.”
Class 5A, Area 12 with Southside and Alexandria
According to head coach Shane Chappell, the Panthers’ somewhat surprising run to the 2019 state quarterfinals was due in large part to disregarding the scoreboard in non-area games and improving one pitch and one at-bat at a time.
“From the first day we arrived, it’s always been about being the best we can be in every situation,” he said. “We tried to change the mindset and chemistry culture of the program. Any team that’s trying to be good has to be in a constant state of self-evaluation.”
Following an eight-win season the previous year, Chappell guided the 2019 Panthers to a 25-12 record, first and second-round playoff series wins and the program’s first berth in the state quarterfinals since 2016.
“Our guys got stronger and faster during the offseason, and we continued to bond together,” said Chappell. “At this point of the season, we’re still in the phase of how we can get better on the things we need to improve upon. When we get to area play, it becomes more result oriented. We’re pleased with where we are; we’ve just got to continue to move forward.”
Senior pitcher/centerfielder Tyler Roberts and junior pitcher Jacob Little were key contributors to that success. Roberts batted .391 with 47 hits, 35 runs scored, 21 RBI and eight doubles while pitching to a 6-0 record with a 2.03 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 60 and two-thirds innings.
Roberts was a first-team outfield selection on the Class 5A All-State team, while Little was a second-team selection. Both were named to the All-Messenger first team.
“We have a good group of guys returning this year, and our expectations obviously are to bring home a state championship,” said Roberts. “We’re taking each game one at a time and looking to get better every single week and have fun doing it.”
Little, who went 7-2 in 2019 with a 2.56 earned run average with 52 strikeouts, believes that the 2020 team is the best he’s been on in high school.
“That’s chemistry-wise and work-ethic wise. Each game we see what we need to get better at, and we work on that during the next practice.”
“First of all, [Little and Roberts] are high-character people,” said Chappell. “You don’t have to worry about what you’re going to get from them day in and day out. They’re also competitors who play with a high level of energy and intensity. They both can swing the bat and are really good runners.”
Chappell noted the advantage of having four top-flight pitches in Roberts, Little and seniors Brock Ford and Micah Phillips who are adept in the field.
“They neat thing is that those guys will be our infield when they’re not on the mound, so our infield will basically stay intact.”
Chappell is also pleased with his depth.
“Our sophomore class has made big strides from last year and they’ve developed very quickly. Most of them don’t have varsity experience but we’ve got a tremendous amount of athletes who can play versatile roles and multiple positions.”
Chappell acknowledged that he and his staff and players are well aware of the annual high expectations for Southside baseball.
“We hold ourselves to a high standard, and if our families and the school and the communities of Southside and Rainbow City have higher expectations for us than we do, then there’s a problem. Even if we win games but don’t play our best, the players won’t be happy, and I certainly won’t be happy.”
Class 7A, Area with Grissom, Huntsville and Sparkman
Gadsden City is looking to build upon its first state playoff berth in five years.
Under first-year head coach Blake Bone, who coached at Southside the previous 11 years, the Titans came from behind in the final area game of the regular season to beat Sparkman for second place. GCHS then fell to top-ranked Bob Jones in the first round.
GCHS assistant coach Daniel Arthur said that success is fueling the Titans’ fire for the 2020 season.
“It’s been an amazing thing to watch. These guys will go through the wall for us, and they’re hungry and ready to compete. Most of these seniors I’ve had since they were in seventh grade, so I’ve been able to watch them grow and help turn this program around to where we are right now. This is a very exciting time right now for Gadsden City baseball.”
Team captains and seniors J.J. Gray, Paden New and Austin Brewer all signed college baseball scholarships – Gray and Brewer with Southern Union and New with Bethel University.
Brewer last season batted .321 with 26 hits, eight doubles and 17 RBI, while New finished with a .343 batting average, 34 hits and nine doubles. Gray missed the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
“J.J. is a solid player who provides us with pitching, hitting and first base,” said Arthur. “He’s a fun guy who is great to be around, and he’s very emotionally into the game and a great leader. It’s been a long road with Paden since he was in seventh grade, and he brings a lot to the table both on and off the field. Paden’s a tremendous talent and the sky’s the limit for him. He’s a pleasure to have in the locker room and on the field. In the words of Coach Bone, Austin’s the grinder of our team. He’s our motivator and he sets the tone for practices and games. His intensity is a crucial thing we have in the dugout.”