The 2008 Water Valley High School baseball season is about to be underway and head coach Doug Robbins has his team ready to hit the field.
This team is very young, with only five juniors and seniors combined. But what this team lacks in age it makes up with in experience. The Blue Devils are returning six starters from last seasons region 3-3A winning team and are looking to capture its first region 2 2-A division title since 2005.
“We are a young team, but I have had a lot of the young kids for two or three years now. With the summer program we have really developed as a team, the young guys get put in tough situations and they really grow. Right now I am pretty tickled for where we are at this time of the year. I am excited about it,” says Robbins as he enters his fourth year at the helm.
Josh Lowery and Justin Brooks are the lone seniors of the group. Both have taken their roles as team leaders very seriously. If there is anything a teammate needs work on Lowery and Brooks are there, as evident with Lowery giving advice in the batting cage or Brooks sharing his knowledge on how to block up a curveball with a fellow catcher.
“I need leadership out of both of them, not by what they say, but by what they do. Both are great kids with great leadership qualities,” Robbins continued.
The Blue Devils season will begin Saturday, Feb. 16. Let’s take a look at who’s going to play where for the Blue Devils.
The Blue Devils infield has some familiar faces from last season. Josh Lowery will hold down first base most of the time again this year. Lowery led the team with a .972 fielding percentage last year and has been seen making several nice digs and stretches at practice. Sophomore Barrett Larson is a possibility at first base as well when Lowery is called to the mound.
Freshmen Drew Pratt and Shonquayle Jenkins will split time at second base during various times this season. Despite their age, both have shown that they are hard nosed ball players who aren’t afraid to get in front of the ball.
Jeffrey Vance left some huge shoes to fill at shortstop, but sophomore Josh Johnson is ready to lace them up. Johnson is an athletic kid that has the ability to make tough plays.
“He knows how to play the game. He has the potential to be very good at short. He’s got great range and a strong arm,”Robbins reported.
Pratt should see some action at short as well when Johnson goes to the hill for the Blue Devils.
Holding down the hot corner again this year will be junior Brandon Brooks.
“Unbelievable for a young kid at third base,” says assistant coach David Webb who is entering his sixth year with the Blue Devils.
“He’s a smart kid who knows the game and is great to work with. He always seems to be at the right place at the right time which allows him to make the plays that some other kids might not make, but he’s in the spot he needs to be in and he makes it look routine,” Webb said.
Pratt and Larson should each see time at third base as well over the course of the season.
Without a doubt the leader of the infield is catcher Justin Brooks. He is the quarterback of the infield. Either by stepping out and relaying defenses to his teammates or just by simply calming his pitcher down to get him back in his groove, Brooks has his team where they need to be at all times.
“Justin is a scrappy kid who will get out there and be in charge on defense,” said Webb
Backing Brooks up behind the plate will be freshman Kyle Jones.
Ronnie Ferrell held down centerfield for the past three seasons. Now there is a new face at the center of attention, Tarus “Tank” Hervey. Tank is able to cover some ground in the outfield, which allows him to make a lot of plays.
“He plays hard everyday. In batting practice he is hustling and diving after balls when he really doesn’t have to,” Coach Webb said about Tank.
“That really helps us out as a staff because we know this guy came to work today,” says Webb on his centerfielder’s effort.
Sophomore Leo Daniels and Jenkins are expected to split time in left field. Jenkins (along with Pratt) is a valued utility man who fits at almost any spot on the field.
Freshman Walt McCullough will see most of the action in right field. McCullough is rapidly improving his play day by day.
“He’s still learning the game, but is continually getting better and becoming a good defensive outfielder with a strong arm,” Webb continued.
Freshman Torrey Horton and eighth grader Chris Gaston will back up McCullough in right.
That rounds out who will be in the field for the Devils. Now it’s time to figure out who will take the hill.
On the mound
The Blue Devils lost three quality starters in Ferrell, Vance and Will Bratton who combined for 17 of the Blue Devils 25 wins last season. Johnson and Hervey were in the mix of those guys last season too and hope to establish themselves as dominant starters this year.
The pitching staff is not one of power pitchers as it has been in the past years. This year’s pitchers will have to hit their spots and make wise pitch selections.
“We don’t have a guy that is going to awe you,” Robbins said. “Hopefully we got guys that can run out there and keep us in the ball game. We are not going to have a lot of strikeouts this year like we did last year, which means we are going to have to play good defense and score more runs,” says Robbins.
The coach continued, “With that being said, our top two (Johnson and Hervey) have got to stay healthy and compete when we send them out there, particularly in district ballgames. I expect that to be the case.”
Lowery, Jenkins and McCullough will also take the mound sometime during the season.
Lowery, the team’s only southpaw, saw action last year and has developed quite nicely since then. He is expected to give the team quality innings and keep them in many ballgames throughout the season.
The use of the young arms of Jenkins and McCullough does not concern Coach Robbins as he expects these guys to rise to the occasion.
“There aren’t any growing seasons with us. I am going to throw them to the wolves as soon as I get a chance. That’s how kids learn. That’s how I learn about what’s in them; to put them in a situation where it’s tough, it’s challenging,” Robbins said.
“That’s what we’ve been doing to them ever since I have been here and they have answered the call. I don’t expect anything different from them when they take the mound,” Robbins added.
The loss of Vance and Ferrell is most noticeable at the plate. The power duo combined for over a third of the team’s total RBI. Ferrell hit a ridiculous 17 doubles, while Vance led the team with 8 HR.
This year’s team will not be able to rely on the long ball or the big inning. Instead, they will have to manufacture runs and capitalize on scoring opportunities when given the chance.
Lowery returns as the team’s leading hitter with a .398 batting average. The lefty has a great eye for the strike zone and always hits the ball solid.
“He’s got to swing a big stick this year. I am not so sure if Lowery himself won’t replace Vance or Ferrell. He has handled his up days and down days very well, a lot better than maybe he did last year. Hitting is designed for you to fail. The good hitters understand that and he has gotten there,” Robbins said.
Both of the Brooks’ boys and Johnson should give Lowery the opportunity to drive in a lot of runs. All three of these guys understand how to work the count and get on base. With athletic guys like this at the top of the lineup the ability to manufacture runs should not be a problem.
They are also great on the base path as well. Johnson and B. Brooks led the team with 16 steals each last season and J. Brooks was no slack with 11 swipes of his own.
“Justin will be a tough out wherever he is at in the lineup. We really depend on him to get on base more than anything. If he gets on base we can steal with him or hit-and-run, the possibilities are endless with him on base,” explains Webb.
McCullough and Hervey are expected to be the guys protecting Lowery in the lineup.
Hervey has shown flashes of power this preseason and has a great eye for the ball. He is mainly a gap slasher, but don’t be surprised if Tank gets a hold of one and knocks it out of the ball park as he has shown he can do. If a pitcher makes a mistake he will make them pay.
McCullough, although still learning the game, handles himself very well at the plate. To watch his approach at the plate one would never believe that he is only a freshman. He is a load of talent that will give a lot of contribution to this Blue Devil offense.
Pratt and Jenkins are other youngsters who will contribute at the plate this season. Neither seems to be fazed by their lack of experience. Both have confidently stepped into the batter’s box and hit the ball hard this preseason.
“Our thing this year is going to be timely hitting. We are not going to have as many four or five run innings as we have in the past. We will have to scratch for one or two as often as we can,” comments Robbins on his team’s offense.
The Blue Devils season will begin by hosting two home games. The Senatobia Warriors come to town Saturday, Feb. 16 and will start junior varsity action at noon, with the varsity squad to follow shortly after. The Vikings of North Pontotoc will make their way to the Valley Tuesday, Feb. 19 for another round of split squad action. The junior varsity squad is expected to take the field at 4 p.m. Once again the varsity squad will follow shortly after.
If it has been awhile since you have taken in a ballgame at W.V.H.S you should really try to catch one this year. The improvements that have been made to the field over the past five years are truly remarkable. A fan could not ask for a better field to take in a ballgame.
This year’s team is a great group of guys who are dedicated and will need all the support that they can get. Please come out and support you Water Valley Blue Devils baseball team as they strive for their fourth straight 20 wins season and their fourth straight division title.