High School Baseball Is Underway- 2021 Preview Is Here
MADISON- With recent cold weather enveloping the area many of the high school baseball teams have been forced to sit the bench and look out their windows and dream of what could be. The prep squads have officially been prepping for the 2021 season since Jan. 25, the official opening day for practices.
Once the sun breaks through the clouds and warmth circulates around North Alabama, the boys of summer will thaw out and get back onto the local diamonds for the action they’ve all been thinking about.
According to PBR Alabama, which has listed Bob Jones the No. 40 team in the U.S., the Patriots’ baseball team is reloading from last year’s squad, which featured five major college prospects. In reality, the Pats lost seven full-time players from the 2020 team that posted a 15-7 record during the shortened season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Head coach Jared Smith knows the pre-season national ranking is based on last year’s resume and this year’s team is much different than the power-layered lineup of a year ago. “We’re a little green behind the ears and will take losses early in our schedule, but once we get some reps this squad should be good as these players are hungry and want to prove themselves,” added Smith, in his sixth season as head coach of the Class 7A team.
Two infielders and one full-time starting pitcher return in 2021. Slate Alford (Sr., 6-2, 215, INF/P), who signed with Mississippi State, will move to shortstop after three years at third base and Max Soliz (Sr., 6-5, 225, C), signee with Arkansas, will return as starting catcher and will be the target by opponents to make sure they are not as potent at the plate as they could while carrying this team. UAB signee Thomas Ballard (Sr., 6-2, 190, RHP), was top pitcher as a junior and the 2021 squad believes it can win each time he stands atop the mound.
Additional members of the pitching staff expected to pick up the slack are Gracin Wilson (Sr., 6-2, 190, P, INF), who had the second best statistics from last year, Jonathan Tatum (Jr., 5-8, 185, P) and Sam Mitchell (So., 6-5, 210, P, 1B).
A bevy of weapons at the plate await opposing pitchers. They include JW Hopkins (Jr., 6-3, 230, 1B, P), who according to Smith, can leave the yard at any time, Ryan Revera (Jr., 5-8, 175, OF), Logan Hittle (Sr., 5-11, 175, OF, 1B), Drew Alex (Sr., 6-1, 155, OF, P) and Coastal Alabama signee Ryan West (Sr., 5-8, 160, INF).
“We’re well-rounded on offense and will win games differently than we have the last three years,” said Smith. “We’re more small-ball and will win games with lower runs scored.”
Defense should be solid. Moving to third base from the shortstop spot is freshman sensation Braden Booth (Fr., 5-11, 170, INF) who is ranked the No. 10 prospect out of the 2024 class.
“Max (Soliz) is the only returning starter at the same position,” said Smith. “We’re wide open everywhere else.”
Overall inexperience, with only one player returning from the 2019 state runner-up team, will be the Achilles heel for the Patriots. Smith is high on his young prospects. He added, “This team is hungry and a best effort will always be there.”
The new baseball season for the James Clemens Jets is definitely a big change for the Class 7A program. With a cost of nearly $400-thousand, the Jets will play on its new game field, which will feature an artificial turf infield and sidelines and new enriched professional dirt infield. The new facilities can give the Jets a kickoff into the 2021 season as the Jets lost 13 seniors off of the 2020 squad that posted a 12-8 record during the COVID-19 shortened season.
Third-year head coach Johnny Johnson is looking to four returning starters to carry the program this year.
Connor Cantrell (Sr., 6-0, 195, INF,P), John Mark Ingalls (Sr., 5-11, 160, INF), Walker Hoskins (Sr., 6-4, 185, C) and Eli Bolden (Sr., 6-2, 200, INF) are the most experienced in-the-field players on the roster.
“We will have a high-pressure-manufacture-runs type of team without a lot of power,” said Johnson. “We’re very athletic with good speed. Our defense will include Walker (Hoskins) at catcher and his strong arm. The infield will be solid with only the outfield needed to be shored up.”
On the mound, Johnson is blessed with many arms to rely on to keep opponents’ bats at bay. The bevy of pitchers as starters and in the bullpen are Joe Lach (Sr., 5-11, 145), who has a college-talent arm as a left handed pitcher, Connor League (Sr., 6-1, 180, RHP), Brady Clark (Sr., 6-2, 178, RHP) and John August Busch (Sr., 6-0, 180, RHP), who returns to the lineup with the best ERA off last year’s corps of pitchers.
“The biggest question mark for us is the fact we have 16 seniors and 13 juniors, but they didn’t get to play much last year due to the end of our season and summer leagues with the pandemic in place,” said Johnson. “Even our seniors are like new players. I like this group. The senior class is tight and our sophomore class is very talented with as many as three of them to be starters.”
The Jets lost three players from last year’s team who signed college scholarships.
With seven starters returning from a year ago, a roster of 12 seniors and a bevy of pitching talents, the Sparkman Senators are thought to be one of the best teams in North Alabama as the 2021 season sees its first pitch.
“We have something special this year and I’m confident in these players and I feel good about what we’re about to see out of this squad,” said Jason Brewer, in his fourth season as head coach of the Senators.
Those returners that will lead the squad are Jakob Lewis, (Sr., CF), who signed with Southeast Missouri, Tucker Burns (Jr. SS), Kylan Duncan (Sr., 2B), who moves from shortstop to second base, Mikel Pryor (Sr., 1B), an Anderson University-South Carolina signee, Garrett Telaga (Sr., 1B), a signee with Jacksonville State, A.J. Causey (Sr., 3B), a Jacksonville State signee who started at catcher last season, and Jacob Haley (So., C). Ryan Strachan (So., RF) also saw some starting time a year ago where the Senators posted a 10-3 in mark in their abbreviated season.
“We have some power at the plate with Causey, Pryor, Telaga and Strachan providing that part of our game,” added Brewer. “We also added a family from Las Vegas with two boys playing on our team. Senior Will Buening will start in right field and is a defensive gem. His younger brother, Jack, a sophomore, has some serious thump in his bat and will give us a lot of options.”
Brewer has a list of strong arms he can place on the mound in either a starting role or in relief. His ace comes in the form of Causey, who was ineligible last year due to some misfortune over paperwork surrounding being home-schooled. The right handed Causey has two arm slots where he will throw 88 mph from the side and 92 mph from over the top. “His junior season was stripped due to a technicality of his academics,” added Brewer. Number two in the pitching lineup is Telaga, who is coming off slight elbow surgery during the off season. He has the arm and knowledge to mow down opponents. Caiden Johnson (Sr., LHP) has a good curveball and superior changeup. He’s third in the rotation and goes to the mound with movement and 83 mph missile type pitches. Two sophomores, Jacob Haley (RHP) and Strachan both have 90 mph fastballs and will be a big part of Sparkman baseball. Brewer also indicated Jordan Pearce (Jr., RHP) will handle a good part of the action in relief, but will share some of those duties with Patrick Moody (Jr., RHP), who also throws from the side.
“Pitching is our strength and I feel good about this squad overall,” said Brewer. “I feel we’re finally here as our seniors came to us as sophomores with all sorts of high expectations and now as senior players they are part of the retooling we look to use to success.”
High expectations is what will drive the Madison Academy Mustangs in 2021 as the horses return eight starters off last year’s 11-5 squad, which featured only four seniors.
“We bring back a lot of experience, many of these players have played with us since they were freshmen or sophomores and we’re looking at some good outcomes from these players,” said David Pressley, in his fifth season as head coach of Madison Academy. “Since our schedule was cut short last year, we hope to get back into the groove we were in with a good team a year ago.”
The Mustangs will face the toughest schedule they will face since Pressley has been at the Class 5A program, which includes an expected Spring Break tournament play in Florida. The experience factor of having eight seniors and six juniors and sophomores on the roster will help tremendously. Some power, strong arms and overall average speed will make the Mustangs a team to be watched as the 2021 season progresses.
Returning starters include Jackson Hirschler (Sr., C), Brant Benson (Sr., 1B), Brady Merriweather (Sr., 2B), Kai Watson (Sr., SS), Blake Helton (Sr., 3B), Alex Wade (Jr., OF), Ryan Harness (Sr., OF) and Avery Seaton (Sr., OF-UTL). Wade returns as the team’s top offensive threat at the plate and has committed to sign with Auburn. James Slaughter (Sr., OF) has signed with Russ College of Georgia as he was required to sit out last year as a transfer from nearby Bob Jones.
“We have some power at the plate with Watson being a long ball threat and a doubles type of player,” said Pressley. “We should know more about how the offense can supply power as we get into play as our young players have had to develop power over the past couple of seasons. We will have to play some small-ball, too.”
The defense all begins with Watson at shortstop. Pressley called him the ace of the group. He also said he feels very confident the entire nine players on the field will secure any balls hit in the field.
The pitching staff will have three strong arms to lead the bevy of players wearing the Mustangs’ uniform to top the mound. The squad lost its top pitcher of a year ago due to graduation, but will now be led by Watson, Seaton, who has signed with Alabama A&M and Wade. Each have significant experience and arms to take a stand against any team. Pressley added, “Benson will also see a lot of innings this year and from there, we’ll have to figure out the five through seven pitchers to help us win games.”