The Jefferson baseball team will eventually settle on a starting pitching rotation this year. But who will man those spots is still anyone’s guess.
“I have absolutely no idea,” coach Tommy Knight said.
The Dragons, who move up to 8-AAAA this year, seek wholesale replacement in that area as they lost their entire starting pitching staff from a year ago. Asher Standridge, Joshua Hutch and Taylor Wilkes all moved on to the next level.
“You lose three guys who go on and pitch in college and that means a couple of things — that they were pretty good and it means the ones behind them didn’t get to pitch,” Knight said. “They’re going to have figure it out on the job.”
Jefferson went 21-9 last year and won the Region 8-AAA title, but Knight said filling those starting pitching spots is the no. 1 priority moving forward.
Patrick Hickox, who emerged out of the bullpen last year, figures to be one of the arms in this year’s rotation. But after Hickox, it’s much less clear for the Dragons.
“Other than that, I really don’t know,” said Knight, who enters his 17th season at Jefferson with a 323-123 record. “I wish I did.”
Brooks Beddow returns after seeing time on the mound last year, while Logan Garner, Brandon Trefren, Lane Watkins, Zac Corbin and Will Wood, among others, will figure into the pitching plans.
“We’ve got about eight guys that we’re going to throw in there and see if they can figure it out,” Knight said.
A junior-laden Jefferson team has experienced turnover in other areas, too.
The Dragons graduated their entire starting outfield from last year, but Knight voiced confidence in this year’s replacements. That group includes Justin Cole, Corbin and Chaz Evans.
“I actually feel pretty good about our outfield,” Knight said.
Jefferson will also start a new catcher after last year’s starter, Zack Boobas, opted not to play this year. But the Dragons appear to have a capable successor in Lane Watkins, who Knight called the program’s best catching prospect since Mac McEver in the mid-1990s.
“He throws as good as anybody we’ve ever had in the program behind the plate,” Knight said.
Either Billy Finch and Brandon Clinton will catch when Watkins is pitching.
Elsewhere in the infield, Clayton Jones will take over at third base and Kasen Rainey returns at shortstop. Jacob Richards, Hart Blackstock and Sammy Elegreet will see time at second base. Vinny Farley, Garner and Carter Evans will figure into the plans at first base.
Without Boobas, the Dragons lose their top hitter, but Cole, Watkins and Corbin should bolster the returning lineup. Knight said he has more confidence in the offense after having seen intrasquad scrimmages.
“I think we’re going to be OK with the bats,” Knight said.
While the Dragons must shore up their pitching, the coach is excited about the potential for this team to thrive by season’s end.
“I really think this team, as a whole, as it plays throughout the year is going to get better and better,” Knight said.
And Knight said the cohesiveness of this group can’t be underestimated, pointing to the atmosphere the team provides in practice.
“They play good together,” he said. “Chemistry means a lot. It means a ton as far as winning baseball games.”
Jefferson must contend with a Region 8-AAAA that includes St. Pius X (25-7 last year), Madison County (22-8), North Oconee (16-11), Oconee County (13-14) and Stephens County (10-16). The Dragons’ run of five-consecutive seasons of reaching the state playoffs will be put to the test.
“There’s going to be a good team in our region left out of the playoffs,” Knight said. “We just hope it’s not us.”
Then again, Jefferson has typically found a way to win, regardless of circumstance, having produced 20-win seasons in nine out of the last 11 years and 14 state playoff appearances since 2001.
“It’s kind of what the expectations are every year,” Knight said. “I don’t see any reason to change this year.”