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Blue Devils 2011: How Far Will They Go?

Taylor King pitches in the March 1 opening game.

By  Reid Bankston
Sports Reporter

WATER VALLEY – After falling short in the State Championship series against national power Sumrall, the Water Valley Blue Devils are gearing up to make another run at a state title in 2011.  However, if they are to manage back-to-back trips to Trustmark Park in Pearl, they will have to rely on a different cast of characters, including a new face at the head of the program.

The ace of Water Valley’s 2010 staff Shanquayle Jenkins and perhaps the team’s best all around player Josh Johnson have both moved on after graduation, but the biggest change has come in the dugout, as Kary Bridges has replaced Doug Robbins as head coach.

Although new to the program, Bridges comes with quite the baseball pedigree, having success as both a player and a coach.  Bridges spent 10 years playing minor league baseball after being drafted by the Houston Astros organization in 1993.  Bridges’ coaching stops includes one at perennial state championship contender Oak Grove in Hattiesburg, as well as stints as head coach at Columbia Academy and as assistant coach at Brandon High School in the Jackson area.

Bridges inherits a Blue Devil program with a strong tradition built by Robbins, as well as a team that recorded a 22-10 overall, 8-1 district record in 2010. The Blue Devils capped off a strong 2010 season with series wins over Independence, Corinth, and Booneville in a dramatic playoff run.

Returning from that team are seven of nine starters and a host of productive bats, led by the quartet of Drew Pratt, Walt McCullough, JD Fondon, and Taylor King.  The heart of the Water Valley lineup in 2011, this fearsome foursome combined for 14 homeruns and 111 RBIs in 2010.  

Each player ranked in the top four in both statistical categories, while Fondon and McCullough sported two of the top three batting averages on the team of players with at least 80 plate appearances.  

Another key bat for Bridges this season will belong to John Michael Grimmett, who could have as big an impact as anybody for Water Valley this season.  

The big first baseman hit .314 last season with two homeruns and 18 RBIs, and played his best baseball in Water Valley’s late season charge. Outfielders Chris Conard and Cole Camp are efficient players that should be better for Bridges with a year of experience under their belt.  The Blue Devil offense is off to a quick start already in this campaign, scoring 31 runs in their first two games, both wins over Charleston.

The loss of Jenkins and Johnson will likely go unnoticed offensively, but it could be a much different story on the mound.  The star duo  dominated at times for Water Valley last season, racking up 15 wins, eight complete games, and 166 strikeouts in 2010, while each played massive roles in the Blue Devils run to the State Championship series.  Looking to cushion the loss of Johnson and Jenkins will be the trio of King, McCullough, and Pratt.  Of the three, McCullough saw the most significant action in 2010, including a gutsy game three performance in North Half against Booneville.  

McCullough finished 2010 with five wins, one save, 29 strikeouts, and a 4.48 earned run average in 29.2 innings pitched.  In the first two games of 2011, McCullough and King got the starts, both recording emphatic wins, although King only pitched one inning in all of 2010.  

The wildcard of the staff is likely to be Pratt, who at times, has been a very effective pitcher for the Blue Devils, despite his 6.26 ERA in 2010.  If Pratt can get better control and cut down on walks, the Water Valley staff should rack up some wins.

There is a tremendous weight on this trio’s shoulders to eat up the 129.2 innings pitched by Johnson and Jenkins in 2010.          

Offensively they should get all the help they need, but these three need to stay healthy and consistent for the Blue Devils to have a chance to replicate their heroics from a season ago.

 

A Look At The Numbers

By  Reid Bankston
Sports Reporter

.345- As a team in 2010, Water Valley hit an impressive .345 on their way to an appearance in the state championship series against Sumrall.  The Blue Devils were able to come up with the timely hits when needed last season, With an inexperienced pitching staff this season, that will need to continue.

Seniors Walt McCullough, JD Fondon and Drew Pratt are poised to have big seasons for Kary Bridges, as the trio combined for 12 homeruns and 86 RBIs last season.  Taylor King and John Michael Grimmett should provide the Blue Devils with balance up and down the lineup.

59- Water Valley base runners were a terror on the base paths in 2010, stealing 59 runs as a team.  Although 26 of those came from the departed Josh Johnson and Shanquayle Jenkins, Water Valley will need to continue to manufacture runs for an inexperienced pitching staff.  Perhaps the most athletic player on the team, Chris Conard will need to find his way on base as often as possible.  Drew Pratt is the leading base stealer returning to the Blue Devils with 14 last season.

8.1- Blue Devil hitters combined to drive in eight runs a game in 2010, a number that if repeated, could see Water Valley make another deep run into the playoffs.  Returning RBI leaders Walt McCullough, JD Fondon, Taylor King, and Drew Pratt provide four quality run producers, while John Michael Grimmett should step up his production.  In two games this season, the Water Valley offense is averaging 15.5 runs a game against inferior competition, although hitting should be the strength of this year’s squad.

3.85- Powered by the arms of Josh Johnson and Shanquayle Jenkins the Water Valley pitching staff combined for an impressive 3.85 earned run average in 2010.  

This year McCullough, King, and Pratt will all see their fair share amount of work.  In King’s first outing of the season, the junior struck out nine and recorded the win.  McCullough is also 1-0 on the young season with six strikeouts.  It may be a bit unrealistic to expect a similar ERA this season to the 3.85 last year’s staff posted, but it could be close.  If the pitching staff can hang around 4.0 to 4.5 a game, the Blue Devils should have another big season.

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