Wildcats look different for 2007 season

By BOBBY "BUTCH" BURNEY | News-Telegram Sports Editor

When Jerrod Hammack looks around the Sulphur Springs diamond, he doesn't see a whole lot of players who helped the Wildcats to an undefeated baseball district title last year.

But, he has faith in the players he does have.

Hammack returns five lettermen from last season, but has an entire group coming up from the JV team that lost just one game all season.

"I really believe these guys can step in and do a good job," said Hammack, whose team went 22-9 last season and were area finalists.

He'll get a chance to find out tomorrow when the Wildcats open the season in the Wills Point tournament. SSHS will play Athens at 1:30 p.m. in Wills Point.

The most obvious area lacking experience is on the mound. None of this year's projected pitchers threw a varsity inning in 2006.

"We're all new, we don't have a single varsity inning returning," Hammack said. "At the same time, I think we have as many, if not more, arms that we feel like can contribute. Nobody throws 90 miles-per-hour, but at the same time these guys know how to pitch. They seem to be able to spot their pitches and get people out."

Those expected to see time on the mound are Brittan Diamond, Kevin Mabe, Brandon Whittle, Ty Tieseger, Tyler Rhoades, Dalton Abner and Jeff Beck. By the time district rolls around, Hammack hopes two of them have emerged as his top starters who are capable of going the distance. If not, then he is willing to mix and match to get through games.

"Pitching has been the concern of everybody around me," Hammack said. "I saw those guys pitch on JV and I knew they'd be Ok, but they've really gone beyond my expectations this early. They've really been able to pitch well, work fast, they don't waste pitches, and they are making people hit their pitches."

On the infield, Rhoades is moving from first base to third after batting .291 with five extra-base hits and 17 RBI last year. Taking his place at first will likely be Colby Strain, who was the designated hitter most of the season and batted .289 with three home runs and eight RBI.

The Wildcats' middle of the infield will be totally new after the Wildcats graduated 11 seniors last year including two-time All-State second baseman Josh Riley.

Filling in this tear will be Diamond, Beck and Whittle in the middle infield with Josh Dunn behind the plate.

"Josh Dunn, in my mind, is very capable of being the best catcher that I've coached in 10 years," Hammack said.

In the outfield, Jake North (.270, four extra-base hits) and Clay Wilks (.265, eight RBI) are penciled in along with Dalton Abner, though Chris Thompson and Mabe will also get a shot to play.

The big loss there is senior Colby Mills, who broke his ankle in a scrimmage two weeks ago. He must wear a cast for four more weeks, then will be re-evaluated. Doctors said he won't play this year, but Mills vowed to come back.

He was written in as the No. 3 hitter in the lineup and center fielder on defense. He batted .444 last season with 10 extra-base hits and 11 RBI.

"We're still solid up and down the line-up," Hammack said. "We've got guys who can hit the ball. We're still really trying to work on trying to use the middle of the field. We were such a good two-strike hitting team last year, and that's something we're going to have to work on this year.

"But, as far as ability, up and down the lineup, we'll be able to score some runs."

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