MADISON – MRA baseball coach Allen Pavatte is an old-school guy. So it's no real shocker that he found Old School Grit to his liking. The book is right in his wheelhouse, so much so that Pavatte made it required reading for his team this preseason. The players are also quizzed on it weekly.
"When I came across the book, I thought it had a great message, one that this team needed to hear," said Pavatte, who officially begins his ninth season as MRA's skipper when the Patriots open the 2019 season later today at Copiah Academy. "The thing that I ask my guys every day is why are you here? What is your purpose? Why do you do what you do? If they're playing this game of baseball, or whatever they're doing, they need to love what they're doing. They need to have a passion for it to get the most of it."
For those not familiar with the book, it is authored by Darrin Donnelly. It outlines 15 rules for building grit and how to have a successful and happy life, along with having the willpower to persevere with passion and a sense of purpose. Another subject the book broaches is leadership. Namely, how important leadership is. There again, Pavatte made the correlation with this year's team, which has only six seniors compared to 11 a year ago.
"As coaches, we're always asking who is going to lead this team?" Pavatte said. "This year more so than ever, probably. We lost 11 seniors from last year's team, and they all contributed. We have very little experience coming back this season, so we're going to have to have somebody step up and be a leader, a positive leader. What we're trying to do is develop more positive leaders, so that they will have a bigger impact on our team. Bigger picture, we're trying to give them some life lessons and rules to success."
By any measure, Pavatte has been successful not only in terms of winning on the diamond, but also in molding young men in a positive manner while leading by Christian example. He's one of the most popular, well-respected people on the MRA campus, and someone who is highly-regarded and respected by his coaching peers. He's approaching 600 career wins, 174 of which have come at MRA, where he's led the Patriots to two State Championships (2012 & 2016) and three State runner-up finishes.
Pavatte would like nothing better than to add a third state title to his MRA resume this season. He will attempt to do so with an entirely new outfield, a revamped infield on the corners, and minus his best hitter (Hayden Barksdale), two of his top three starting pitchers Landon Cochran & Davis Ferguson) and two key relievers (Sam Brooks & Preston Ray) from last year's team, which finished 22-14 overall and 9-6 in the conference.
In addition, an elbow injury and subsequent surgery will sideline starting catcher John Cartwright for his entire senior season. Only two full-time starters return from a year ago, middle infielders Chris Snopek and Niko Mazza. Both are underclassmen.
"We have some unknowns, there's no question," Pavatte said. "We have to replace our entire outfield. We have to replace much of our lineup hitting-wise. We lost our No. 1 and No. 3 pitchers. And we lost much of our bullpen. We lost a lot. Plus, we lost (John) Cartwright. The injury to Cartwright was a huge blow to us because we were expecting him to be back. Not only is it a huge blow production-wise, but also from a leadership standpoint."
Pavatte compares this year's team to his 2017 team in terms of relative inexperience entering the season. That team followed the 2016 championship team, and featured only four seniors and zero returning starters. This year's team has only six seniors and two full-time returning starters in Snopek and Mazza. This year's schedule, like that year, is also a brutally-tough one, complete with a bevy of road games against high-caliber competition.
"There's a lot of comparisons," Pavatte said.
Pavatte can only hope for better results. That 2017 team finished with an uncharacteristic losing season – Pavatte's only losing season during his tenure at MRA, and just the second of his coaching career which spans nearly three decades.
Things returned to normalcy a year ago, as Pavatte's club eclipsed the 20-win mark and won four of its five conference series during the regular season and swept PCS in the opening round of the playoffs before bowing out in the semifinals. To stay the course, proven commodities such as Snopek and Mazza are going to be called upon to step up alongside a roster otherwise littered with relatively inexperienced, unproven players in order to fill the sizeable void left behind by the likes of Barksdale, Cochran, Ferguson, and Bailey Rademacher among others.
"We will be young and relatively inexperienced, but the expectations are still the same," Pavatte said. "We expect to play for and win a state championship. Our strengths going into the season will be pitching and defense. We're just going to have to improve each game hitting-wise. I'm really excited about this team because it's the most athletic team we've had since I've been here. We're faster than we've ever been. We're stronger than we've ever been before. And our pitching depth is deeper than it's ever been."
In Snopek, a junior, and Mazza, a sophomore, MRA has a top-shelf defensive middle infield. Snopek, the son of former Major Leaguer Chris Snopek, batted .380 a year ago. He clubbed four home runs to go along with seven doubles and 25 RBIs. He also led the team in runs scored with 38. Meanwhile, Mazza batted .280 with two doubles and one triple. The pair are expected to frequently flip-flop positions throughout the course of the season.
"I feel really good about both of those guys," Pavatte said. "We're solid there."
Sophomore Hayes Puckett, who showed considerable promise a year ago while splitting duties with Cartwright behind the plate, is slated to start at catcher. Those three will be joined on the infield by senior Bryce Ishee at third base and sophomore Sam Thomas McInnis at first base. Ishee, who started at third base every third game a year ago, will also likely play some at first base. Jake Carr, a junior who has flashed the leather defensively in the preseason, would play third in that scenario.
The outfield will look entirely different as senior Bailey White (left), senior Cody Swanson (center) and junior Kyle Savell (right) are set to step in at those three positions. Junior Justin Williams, junior Tyler Starnes, and senior Patrick Smith are among the other top candidates for playing time in the outfield.
Josh Thomas, last year's No. 2 starter, is the lone returning starting pitcher. The junior right-hander went 6-2 a year ago with an ERA of 4.33. He struck out 39 batters in 51.2 innings of work. After that, it's anybody's guess as to who Pavatte will turn to. Or when. He has decided to try a different pitching approach this season - similar to the one the Tampa Bay Rays deployed a year ago on the MLB level – where relievers turn into starters and starters turn into relievers.
While a bit unorthodox, Pavatte believes the strategy will prove to be generally effective. "We're going to do things a little differently because of the pitching depth we have," he said. "We can give you some different looks, different velocities, to keep the hitters off balance."
Sophomore Brayden Jones, senior Grant Case, junior Nasson Rodriguez, Mazza, Smith, Carr, Snopek, and Savell are among those expected to be called upon to pitch.
MRA's home opener vs. Tallulah Academy is scheduled for this upcoming Saturday at Patriot Field. The Patriots also host Riverfield and St. Andrew's later this month. Otherwise, there's a slew of road games. There's only two home games scheduled in the month of March. MRA travels to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and to Memphis for multi-day tournaments among many other stops in between.
It's a schedule that will certainly test just how much old school grit the new-look Patriots have.
"We have a challenging schedule, but that's nothing new," Pavatte said. "It's always tough."