STARKVILLE — Normally, teams with records of .500 or better don”t feel as far behind as the Starkville High baseball team.
Such is life for a team that has had five games rained out in a week and is about to play three unfamiliar teams in a week-long road trip in another state.
But that”s the situation the Yellow Jackets (2-1) are in as they prepare to depart Friday for their annual spring break road trip to the Florida panhandle, where they”ll face West Florida Tech, Gulf Breeze, and Escambia.
When they return, they”ll have a tune-up game against Calhoun City before jumping into division play against Columbus.
With a string of first-year starters in the lineup, Starkville coach Danny Carlisle has seen more worrying traits than positives.
Carlisle has bemoaned lagging plate discipline — Starkville is hitting .229 — and his team”s inability to transfer practice performances to games.
Never was that more present than in the Yellow Jackets” 12-6 loss to New Hope on March 1. Starkville led 4-0 lead in the fourth inning before two outfield errors helped the Trojans rally and forced the Yellow Jackets to go to their bullpen early.
Carlisle feels like the New Hope loss has been Starkville”s only measuring stick this season, so he doesn”t have much to judge his team”s progress.
“We were competitive for four innings and then we fell apart,” Carlisle said. “That really concerned me, especially since we haven”t been able to play since then. We walked three times and struck out 15. Coming off that, we go down to Florida and play an Escambia team that won 35 ballgames.”
Carlisle is most concerned when pitchers Nick Brooks and Shaquille Hill take the mound, which forces him to shuffle the outfield alignment. The continuing position battles between Victor Johnson and Daniel Murphree in left field and Max Bartlett and Blake Harrell at shortstop also are unsettling.
“These guys get that competitive edge and understand they”re working for a spot,” Carlisle said. “Even at third base, we”ve got Wesley (Montgomery) and Lee (Peeples) who”ve shared time. That”s another deal where you”re looking for someone to step up.”
The players and coaches share frustration of having a week”s worth of games rained out, which makes practice extra crucial ahead of the road swing.
With leadership at a premium, the Yellow Jackets” most experienced senior admits he hasn”t played his role to the fullest.
Senior catcher Blake Dawkins his done his part with a team-leading .500 batting average, but he admits he needs to match what teammate Montgomery has done to lead a young lineup. Leading a pitching staff with just two returning starters will require more time spent motivating and guiding his teammates through growing pains, especially with players settling into defensive roles.
“I”ll say something if someone gets down, but I”ve really been focused on getting my arm back and being the best catcher I can be. That”s extremely selfish,” Dawkins said. “I know we can get better if me and my teammates become more focused. It starts with the guys who”ve been here and know what it”s about.”
Nick Brooks, Starkville”s No. 1 pitcher and a three-year starter, said he has adjusted well to being a leader. In the past two seasons, he has looked up to former teammates R.J. Johnson and Chuck Tillery.
“They left me with the mind-set of being a competitor,” Brooks said.
His approach to leading the new group is simple: Just keep playing.
“Pitches still have to be thrown and plays still have to be made,” Brooks said. “You can only show players what it takes to be a starter on this team. You gotta hit, run, and do the little stuff that wins games. They”ll catch on to that. You wouldn”t be on this team if you couldn”t hit, catch or throw.”
Carlisle would like to see the trip bring the team closer together. Having to stay in close quarters and to spend more than five hours on the road can affect focus or improve the bond within a team Carlisle calls “blue-collar.”
“We”ve never left from down there without a win, and we don”t want this to be the year it happens,” Carlisle said. “We”ve got some growing up to do, and we”ve got to do it against some good teams.”
Saturday — Starkville vs. West Florida Tech (6 p.m.)
Monday — Starkville vs. Gulf Breeze (6 p.m.)
Tuesday — Starkville vs. Escambia (6 p.m.