Patriots To Feature New-Look Lineup
MADISON – MRA opens its baseball season in less than 24 hours and longtime head coach Allen Pavatte still hasn’t fully decided how he plans to fill out the initial lineup card prior to the first pitch.
“I have a pretty good idea, but it’s not set in stone right now as to who is going to be on it, or in what order,” Pavatte said Friday. “I haven’t settled on a lineup, and I can see it changing from week to week, game to game once we get going.”
MRA lost 16 seniors from last year’s team – many of whom played highly significant roles on a team that finished 28-10 and advanced to the MAIS Class 6A State championship series - leaving behind a roster littered with largely untested sophomores and upperclassmen. Hence, Pavatte’s predicament.
“This is probably the most inexperienced team I’ve had since 2017 when I lost Hayden White, Trammell Martin, Tanner Propst and that group,” Pavatte said. “We’ve got a lot of sophomores, and even some of our upperclassmen have very little to no varsity experience. I like this team. This is the most energetic group I’ve had since I’ve been at MRA. They bring energy every day to practice, so I’m excited about that. We’ve just got to get some experience. We’ve got to grow. We need some games under our belt.”
That process starts Saturday afternoon in the form of a season-opening doubleheader in Starkville. The Patriots are slated to play host Starkville Academy at 2, followed by Bessemer Academy (AL.) at 4:30.
Pavatte is entering his 30th season as a head coach. This is his 12th season at MRA. He has compiled an overall record of 646-326 (249-131 at MRA). Pavatte has guided the Patriots to a pair of State championships (2012, 2016) and five State runner-up finishes. They have been in the State championship series in seven of his 11 seasons at MRA.
For the Patriots to remain in the championship mix again this year, they figure to need big seasons from five returning starters along with sprinkled production from their younger players who are being thrust into prominent roles. And pitching, which is undoubtedly the biggest question mark entering the season, will, in large part, have to exceed expectations.
“That’s our biggest area of concern right now, the mound,” Pavatte said. “That’s where we have the most inexperience. We’ve got plenty of arms, we just don’t have that much experience. We only have one guy that has serious experience from last year.”
That one guy is junior right-hander Jackson Evers, who is slated to start the season-opener Saturday against Starkville Academy. The Ole Miss commit is expected to be the Patriots’ ace this season after serving as the No. 3 starting pitcher a year ago. Evers compiled a 6-2 record as a sophomore with an ERA of 1.79. He struck out 38.
Evers is one of only four returning pitchers. The other three combined for just 6 1/3 innings last season. In fact, MRA graduated eight pitchers who combined for 181 of the 228 2/3 innings a year ago. The two most significant losses, of course, were last year’s ace Niko Mazza and No. 2 Brayden Jones. Mazza, who ranked among the national leaders in strikeouts (114) is now at Southern Miss. Jones, who struck out 78, is now at Ole Miss. Both were named Collegiate Baseball and Perfect Game All-Americans. They combined to pitch 113 innings.
Part-time starters/relievers Zach Beasley (4-2, 44 strikeouts) and Austin Savell (2-1, 26 strikeouts) along with Sam Polles (21 strikeouts) also departed.
In other words, Pavatte pretty much knew what he had on the mound last year – arguably the best pitching staff in school history. That’s not the case this year. Brennan Jones, Brayden’s younger brother, is going to get a long look in the No. 2 role. Ole Miss commit Pepper Heard, Drew Lambert, Corey Watkins and J.T. Wynne were names mentioned by Pavatte in consideration for the role of No. 3 starting pitcher.
“Obviously we have Jackson coming back, he’ll be our No. 1,” Pavatte said. “Brennan Jones has really pitched well in the preseason . . . we’re expecting him to be somewhere in the rotation. J.T. Wynne has been a big surprise pitching-wise. He’s been throwing the ball really well. He’s moving up in the rotation. Now whether he’ll be a starter or someone we use to eat up some innings in middle relief or a closer I don’t know that yet. But we are expecting him to play a big part. Drew Lambert has had a really good preseason. Pepper has been really inconsistent right now. He’s a left-handed arm who we really need to step up and be a part of our three-four man rotation. Corey Watkins has been a real big surprise for us, both on the mound and playing first base.”
Watkins is expected to start at first base when Evers is pitching. Jackson (.321 batting average) will slide over to first base on non-pitching days. Jack Dye and Drew Lambert are in a two-man battle at second base. Kaleb Lipscomb, one of those five returning starters, will start at shortstop after batting .329 a year ago. Third base is anybody’s guess. As many as five guys are vying for the starting spot at the hot corner, led by Ethan Mallett and Pax Hughes.
In the outfield, dual-sport athlete Stone Blanton, who is going to play football and baseball at South Carolina next year, is expected to be the center fielder. Peyton Martin, a Northwest Community College signee, will start the season in left but could move to right when Ty Brooks returns from injury. Brooks is the projected starter in left. Nic Arnold will likely start the season in right. Layton Landry is another name to keep an eye on in the outfield.
Connor Stewart, who moved into the starting role at catcher a year ago after Hayes Puckett sustained an injury, returns behind the plate. Bennett Cloud will also see time at that position.
Blanton played in only 13 games a year ago after suffering a season-ending injury over spring break. Covid-19 shut down the previous season after just 14 games. Martin batted .351 a year ago with 11 extra base hits. He drove in 30 and scored 30. Stewart, meanwhile, batted .292 and was solid defensively.
Pavatte is hoping that the return of Blanton, Martin, Evers, Stewart and Lipscomb can help offset the losses of Bryce Chance and Toby Trowbridge among others. Chance, a Mississippi State signee, led the team in nearly every offensive statistical category a year ago. He, too, was a Collegiate Baseball All-American.
In total, MRA graduated players responsible for 217 of 323 hits, 22 of 25 home runs, 183 of 255 RBI and 207 of 315 runs from last season.
“We need for Stone to have a big year for us,” Pavatte said. “I think it changed part of our team last year, especially from a lineup standpoint, when we lost Stone. He was just figuring some things out as a hitter when he got hurt. His presence in the lineup, whether he hits or doesn’t hit, is huge. He makes a difference in your lineup. He has worked hard. Nobody outworks Stone. He’s a hard worker.”
Blanton isn’t the only one in the lineup with some pop, either.
“We’ve got some power,” Pavatte said. “We had the most impressive BP that I’ve probably ever seen several weeks ago since I’ve been at MRA . . . we probably hit 45 balls out of the park. It was a show. We’ve got some speed, too. We’re athletic. We’ve got some guys who can run. Early in the season we’re going to have to manufacture some runs until we figure out our identity.”