Spain Park baseball preview

Published 4:57 pm Tuesday, February 2, 2016

2-10 spain park baseballBy BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor

HOOVER – In 2014, Spain Park won the 6A state baseball title. The Jaguars got hot at the right time and ended the season on a 10-1 run to storm through the state playoffs and snatch a baseball title before reclassification took effect and Spain Park was knocked up to the newly formed 7A. Last season, in 2015, the Jaguars missed the state playoffs altogether. That is not to say the 2015 Spain Park team was significantly or even markedly less talented than the team that came before it, but rather shows how thin the margin for error is, and how important area breakdowns can be. This year, in 2016, the Jaguars are hoping to bounce back and claim a spot among the state elite.

Will Smith is in his 13th year as the head baseball coach at Spain Park. The Billingsley native took the job after spending four years in the Red Sox minor league system and has been around the program almost as long as the school has existed. His Jaguar teams over the last half-decade have all knocked at the door of a state title before his group in 2014 won one, and he is very familiar with what it takes to win at this level.

“It was several years of getting close, getting close, getting close,” Smith said in a Feb. 2 interview. “The longer I’ve been in this business you understand it takes that. To knock on the door so many times before you actually get through it.”

After winning the title and reclassifying to 7A, Spain Park was thrust in an area with Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills and Hewitt-Trussville. All three of those teams spent time as the No. 1 team in the state in 7A last season while Spain Park rose as high as No. 2.

“Last year, there was no room for error in our area,” Smith said. “You could very easily win or lose based on one or two plays throughout the course of the game.”

The Jaguars found themselves on the wrong end of enough of those plays to finish outside the top two in the area, and as a result missed the postseason. To remedy that situation this season, Spain Park is going to have to replace some talent. Mason Duke and Rodney Anderson, the Jaguars top arm and bat from last season, as well as three-year starting pitcher Tyler Wise have all graduated.

“We lost our best arm and our best bat as well as our catcher,” Smith said. “Those are the holes we’re looking to fill.”

Duke was one of the best arms not just across the county, but across the state. The five-foot-11-inch right-hander went 7-2 with a 1.40 ERA over 60 innings pitched and recorded 77 strikeouts. Anderson on the other hand batted .486, tops in the county last season, had 40 RBIs and a slugging percentage of .771.

Jake Whitehead and Quinton Hoffman both have thrown in the past, and both will be rising seniors who will be tasked with leading the way from the mound along with junior Will Battersby as well as Hayden Freeman. Anderson’s spot at first will be filled by Hoffman, Charles McLin or Carson Hall. Reed Thomas played behind Wise last season at catcher and will most likely get the nod heading into the season, although Smith and his staff will use the first month of the season to make tweaks to the lineup and see how the pieces fit together.

While there are obvious questions about certain aspects of the Jaguar lineup heading into the season, there are also some veteran field players who Smith is hoping will step into bigger roles, especially offensively.

“We do have a lot of guys coming back that have some experience, a lot of at-bats and innings played,” he said. “Bryan Sanderson, Drew Hawker, Freeman, Jacob Rich. Those are all guys that are coming back that got close to 100 at-bats the year before. We’re going to need them to have more consistent years as seniors to take the loss of Rodney.”

Looking ahead at the second season in easily the toughest baseball area in the state, Smith believes it is important not to look too far down the line, and focus instead on the immediate future.

“You have to take that day-by-day,” Smith said. “We’ve put an emphasis on controlling things you can control, taking it one day at a time. We’re going to have to play a lot better defensively in our infield this year than we did last year. Making routine plays, that’s what high school baseball is all about.”