Chuck Cooper knew who his aces were. Senior pitchers Matt Poteete and Hayden Crowe combined to go 22-2 last year for the Jackson Christian baseball team, which won the Class A state championship.
Poteete is now pitching at UT Martin. Crowe is at Butler Community College in Kansas. With those all-state players gone, Cooper’s most important pitchers now are everyone and at the same time no one in particular.
It’s too early to know who might be asked to start a state tournament game in Murfreesboro or a sectional game to get there. Frankly, though Jackson Christian was 16-3 earlier this week, it’s too early to know if the Eagles will even reach those games.
But an important task for Cooper and his staff in 2015 has been developing a readiness in current pitchers to handle high expectations and embrace the responsibility of facing good hitters. Yes, they must work on locating their fastballs and offspeed pitches, but Cooper also needs to see who has the mental toughness required of top pitchers.
“One saying that we have is anybody that has the ball on our team is the No. 1 pitcher, and I think our guys believe that because we believe that in them,” Cooper said. “If you have the ball, we expect you to throw strikes. We expect you to try to get outs for us, and if you can do that then you’ll get the ball again pretty soon.”
Sophomore Carter Holt and junior Hunter Higdon discussed their ongoing progress this spring, and they’ve been joined by several teammates who are candidates to pitch frequently and help lead the run prevention effort Jackson Christian needs to seriously contend for another state championship.
Holt was Jackson Christian’s starting pitcher in the first game this year, a win over Hardin County. His experience up to that point? Four innings of relief in 2014.
“Amped up” at the start, Holt gave up two quick runs against Hardin County before having more success as the game continued. He said it meant a lot when teammates talked to him on the mound before the game, knowing he was a sophomore making his first start.
“They still do that between innings,” Holt said. “Like Caleb Rice, he always comes out and talks to me before every inning, calming me down to get ready for the inning.”
The Rice brothers, Caleb and Zach, weren’t available to pitch at the start of this year due to injuries, but Cooper is hoping to gradually add them to the team’s pitching depth as the year goes along.
If Jackson Christian had to name a No. 1 for the moment, though, it might be Holt, whose fastball rarely reaches 80 but is precisely located.
“There’s a little pressure because you know there’s somebody else that wants to be No. 1, but it gives me a little confidence that all the coaches and players have confidence in me to get the job done,” Holt said.
Cooper said it doesn’t seem like any situation is too big for Holt, who has worked on his curveball and changeup to make them more effective.
Holt said his curveball is not yet as nasty as junior Hunter Higdon’s, and without prompting Cooper said Higdon might have the best curveball on the team.
Higdon, a starting pitcher for a few games last season, might be the team’s No. 2 pitcher so far.
“Super smart player, been in big situations, played baseball his whole life,” Cooper said of Higdon. “You’re not going to do many things he hasn’t seen on the field, so he’s a great guy and just a calming presence to so many of our players. Both those guys, everybody knows how hard they work and just respects them.”
Higdon, who plays shortstop other days, said the takeaway from last year’s state championship is the desire to win it again.
“Everybody knows that we’re a target, so we have to keep fighting and get back up there to the top,” he said.
Other candidates for serious pitching work include Wesley Wester, Tucker Burton, Ethan Joyner, Shea Nickias and Nick Jackson.
They all work with pitching coach Chase McLean, a member of Jackson Christian’s 2008 state title team.
“He calls our pitches and day in and day out works with our pitchers on all the idiosyncracies of the game,” Cooper said, adding McLean does a “phenomenal job.”
Cooper also credits defensive help from catcher Carson Parker, a senior who threw out three baserunners in a recent shutout win over South Gibson.
The Eagles are currently ranked No. 2 in The Jackson Sun’s Dirty Dozen. As of last week, Cooper estimated eight pitchers had at least one win.
“Replacing Matt and Hayden, golly, man. Twenty-two wins on the mound and 1-something ERAs, I don’t know if you can replace that, but … ” and then Cooper paused for a couple seconds and smiled. ” … Maybe we can! I don’t know. These guys, they’re starting off pretty good!”
All the early success is nice and surely has Jackson Christian supporters excited for another big season, but players must get used to fulfilling greater roles than they’ve had in previous years.
This past fall and winter, Cooper emphasized what he called “mental training.” In January and February, his players sat in classrooms and went over lessons designed to help them mentally.
“We actually have almost like a curriculum that these guys go through,” Cooper said of his players. “I mean they’re ready for quote ‘big games.’ They understand the process it takes to remain calm and to focus on themselves.”
Cooper is understandably hesistant to elaborate (“Aw man, I can’t give away all our secrets, man!” he said with a laugh), but he thinks the training is working.
“It’s about learning how your mind works and how to stay calm and how to try to achieve peak performances consistently,” Cooper said. “If you could go out every night and be quote ‘in the zone,’ boy that’d be a great thing, wouldn’t it? Well why can’t you? And so we try to understand a little more about how that happens for you and try to get you to do it.”
Cooper said he knew a lot of returning pitchers could throw strikes but admitted he underestimated how many understood technique and pitching skills so early in the season.
Among several candidates, Higdon and Holt hope they’re on the mound for the biggest games late in the year.
“Ever since eighth grade I’ve always looked up to [Poteete and Crowe] as being up there. I’ve always wanted to be that guy, pitching or no matter what it was, being a leader on the team,” Higdon said.
“I’d be a little amped up,” Holt said, “but I think I’d get the job done.”
Craig Thomas, 425-9634