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Tigers ready to defend state championship

Demopolis head baseball coach James Moody might want to print out a few extra programs when his team opens its season this Tuesday. Because without a roster, it’s a good bet the team’s fans might not know exactly who they’re watching.

With 10 seniors gone from last year’s 4A state championship-winning team, even Moody admits he isn’t entirely sure what kind of team he has just yet.

“Five or six spots are wide open,” he says. “We have no returning innings at catcher. We have no returning innings at first base. It’s going to be wide open for a while and who’s most consistent will play.”

Despite the roster upheaval, Moody says neither he nor his staff nor his players are lowering their expectations for the Tigers to play fundamentally sound, smart, winning baseball.

“I think this team feels a great deal of responsibility, to continue to play at a high level. I told them, we’re going to find a way to win. As soon as our goals change are any less than before, we’re in trouble,” Moody says. “We’re telling them, ‘We’re going to play Demopolis baseball.’ Everyone is well aware we’ve lost a lot of guys, and we’ll have a target on our backs since we’re the defending state champs. But that’s a good thing.”

How well the Tigers handle that target will depend largely on the leadership of their six seniors, including shortstop Hunter Hawley, outfielder and pitcher Bart Butler, and infielder (and possible first baseman) J.B. Black. Along with juniors Tyler Moody and Kyle Thrasher, Butler and Hawley will be key members of a Demopolis offense that will have a much greater emphasis on manufacturing runs via baserunning and contact hitting than in 2005.

“Offensively, we’re going to have to play ‘small ball,’ no question,” Moody says. “When it’s a bunting situation, we’ll bunt. Especially early on, we’ll play it close to the vest, and as we get more confident we’ll open things up.”

That approach is made necessary by the departure of power hitters like Seth Basinger, the 4A Player of the Year now with L.B.Wallace Community College. Without the big blasts from the likes of Basinger, Moody is expecting Demopolis to play much closer games in 2006, making good play in the field a top priority.

Experienced infielders like Hawley at shortstop and David Kent at second will be counted on to keep errors at an absolute minimum.

“With this group, I don’t want them to make great plays, I want them to make the average plays,” Moody says. “Last year we could afford to play loose in the field, because our errors could be covered by our offense. That’s not going to work this year.”

And, of course, tighter games also mean quality pitching will be an absolute must.

Tyler Moody will top the rotation if he can overcome arm trouble suffered during football season. Butler, Hawley, juniors Rob Quinney and Thrasher, sophomore Scott Cannon, and mound newcomer Black will all be asked to provide quality innings over the course of the season. Moody says that in the absence of All-State pitchers like the graduated Devin Goodwin, the team may rely more on a 2-2-2-1 innings rotation amongst four different pitchers.

“Hitters hate that,” Moody says. “For us to have a chance to win, we’re going to have to pitch really well.”

Even if the small ball offense, the defense, and the pitching all come together for Demopolis, the 2006 squad may still not reach the heights reached in 2005. But that’s not a concern of Moody’s. While he says his team welcomes the attention and “target” status that comes from the state championship, neither he nor the team is losing sleep over trying to match their accomplishments just yet.

“We don’t look at that, we don’t think about that,” Moody says. “We expect them to play well, play hard, and compete for our area championship. We’re not worried about anything after that.”

Demopolis will open up their season Feb. 28 against Paul W. Bryant High School in Tuscaloosa at 6 p.m.