By Mike Phillips
Corsicana Daily Sun
They backed the truck right up to the Navarro baseball diamond, lowered the tailgate and told them to jump right in, and they did — boy, how they did.
The ace of the staff went to Texas, the catcher and Region MVP headed for Rice and the center fielder decided to become an Aggie. The first baseman was off to Tulane and the shortstop is now at Lamar. The right fielder is at West Virginia, the closer is at Tarleton and the No. 2 and 3 pitchers in the rotation took off for A&M and Texas State.
They didn’t just leave a hole up the middle (catcher, pitcher, shortstop, and centerfield), they left a crater the size of Colorado.
Most coaches would be crying after losing that kind of talent and 19 players from a team that almost won the Junior College World Series a year ago, which, by the way, is played in Colorado.
But then again, Navarro Coach Whoa Dill is one of those guys who believes, “There’s no crying in baseball.’’
“We’ll be fine. I like this team,’’ said Dill as he stood on the field at practice this week. “We have a young team, but I kind of like having a young group. I like what I see.’’
Apparently, so does Collegiate Baseball, which has Navarro ranked No. 8 in the nation in its preseason poll.
“I think it just means you had a good year the year before,’’ said Dill, whose program has earned that kind of national respect. “We’ve been to the World Series two of the last three years and we won it in 2011 and we should have won it last year.’’
That No. 8 ranking and $8 will get you the lunch special at Roy’s.
And Dill knows that better than anyone.
“They have to go out and prove themselves every day,’’ he said. “But they’re ready.’’
They better be. Navarro opens its season Jan. 31 against North Central with a doubleheader at home. Dill and his players aren’t worried so much about the start of the season as they are about its ending .
“It’s just one of those deals where we have a lot of things to fill,’’ Dill said. “The young guys are going to go though some adversity. They have to figure out how to be college players, and they don’t have a lot of sophomore leadership.
“Hopefully, the young guys will step up,’’ he said. “This is the youngest team I’ve had since 2010. We lost in the region championship game that year.’’
And that group won it all the next season, capturing the World Series title.
The plan is to win it all this year.
“That’s the plan,’’ said catcher Jovan Hernandez, one of three position players returning. Hernandez played left field last year, but his natural position is behind the plate, where he won a state title in high school. Dill knows that’s where his future lies. Hernandez was an all-conference player as an outfielder a year ago and hit .310 for the season with a couple of home runs. Dill will hit him in the No. 5 spot, and is counting on him to handle his young staff that is loaded with arms.
The Bulldogs bring back J.D Hammer, a 6-3 right-hander who throws in the 89-to-92 mph range and has already signed with Marshall. Hammer emerged a year ago and pitched a lot in the World Series games.
“He was one of our main guys at the end of the year and he pitched well in the World Series,’’ Dill said.
Corsicana’s Holden Grounds, who was the All-Golden Circle Player of the Year, could be an impact pitcher as a freshman. Grounds is a crafty and tough right-hander who hits 90 with his fastball and has great command.
“He throws three pitches for strikes,’’ Dill said. “We’re expecting a lot from him. With the new bats, the game has changed and we want to get guys out with three or four pitches. Things have changed. Before you were playing for the big inning but with the new bats you’re not going to hit the home runs any more. It’s going to be about pitching and defense. We won it (World Series) in 2011 with pitching and defense and last year we led the region in pitching.’’
Lucas Schiraldi, who followed in his father’s footsteps and signed with Texas, went 10-0 with a 1.88 ERA to lead Navarro’s staff last year, which led Region XIV with a team ERA of only 2.89.
Hammer and Grounds should be at the top of the rotation and Jack Moffitt, a big (6-3, 220-pound) right-handed sophomore who returns with a 94 mph fastball, will be in the No. 3 slot. He was drafted in the 19th round by the Tigers out of high school.
Jorge Flores, a freshman lefty and Keenan Wingfield, a right-handed freshman and Brandon Strictland, a right-handed transfer from LSU who is originally from Gun Barrel, will be counted on this season. Dill said his candidate for closer is Remey Reed, a freshman from Frisco who throws 89-90 and has a real good splitter.
“We’re going to be able to throw strikes,’’ Dill said. “We have a lot of arms. Last year our mound was very old. This year it’s very young. The first part of the season we will be getting them to learn to pitch at the college level.’’
They’re already learning.
“We’ve seen the young pitchers mature a lot in the last couple of weeks,’’ Hammer said. “The pitching is going to be there, and we have a lot of depth. Everyone can pitch.’’
Dill believes he has enough bats to win, too.
“We’re going to hit,’’ he said. “And we have eight left-handed hitters so we can go right-handed, left-handed. We can put an entire lineup of left-handed hitters out there.’’
Three position players return. Hernandez, who is expected to be an anchor and leader behind the plate, left fielder J.P. Phillips, who it .326, and Grayson Lewis, who hit .315 and was the all-conference third baseman.
“He’s one of the best defensive third basemen I’ve had in a long time,’’ Dill said of Lewis. “He’s a dirtbag. He gets dirty making plays. The thing I like about him is he is the same every day.’’
The middle of the infield looks solid with a new players stepping in with big gloves. Kyle Kirk, a transfer from the University of Houston who hit .320 for the Cougars, brings a good glove and a big bat. He will hit in the No. 3 spot. Dill likes freshman shortstop Mason Hesse, and said, “He’s the best defensive shortstop I’ve had in a while.’’
Lewis, Phillips and Hernandez are expected to take over the leadership on the team, and they have no problem accepting that role.
“I think the talent is there,’’ Hernandez said. “They’re young and that just makes them hungrier. They just have to learn how to adjust to the college game. The second half of the conference, that’s when you will see how good they are.’’
The loss of a mountain of talent and a youth movement won’t change how they feel at Navarro.
“We’re ready to get back to the World Series,’’ Hammer said.
Lewis was even more emphatic.
“We tasted it last year, and now we want to go back and win the whole thing,’’ he said.
Lewis and Hernandez won a state title in high school at Rockwell Heath, and they know all about adjusting to the college game.
“They (the freshmen) just need to adjust to the speed of the game,’’ Lewis said. “But the talent is there. Every single person on this team is super talented, and everyone knows their role.’’
And everyone at Navarro knows what’s expected.
“To win it all,’’ Lewis said.