After three Class AAA Final Four appearances in four years, the South Effingham Mustangs baseball team is used to expectations.
And that’s OK with coach Tony Kirkland.
“This is a great group,” he said. “It’s been a successful group but also a group that does things the right way. They’re a class act. They really are. They’re good kids, and they’re good baseball players. They do what they’re supposed to do in the classroom.”
The 2007 season, which ended in a semifinal loss to Columbus, had its share of trials and tribulations for the veteran coach. Injuries early in the year forced him to play younger players who likely wouldn’t have gotten to play much.
What that means for this year is Kirkland has a host of returning players with invaluable experience gained through another run deep into the playoffs.
“We’re listed as having 10 starters returning,” he said.
Kirkland asked rhetorically how that was possible, given that there are only nine positions on the field. But it only shows how much he had to rely on his bench and some previously unproven players.
“Every one of those guys had an opportunity to start last year,” he said.
There are still some questions to answer about the 2008 Mustangs. Kirkland wants to develop depth in his pitching corps and has some spots in the lineup he wants to solidify. But he brings back almost the entire starting infield, with the exception of first base.
Seniors John Roberts and Colby May, who is also the team’s closer, are back at catcher and shortstop, respectively.
Chris Zittrouer, last year’s starter at second base, returns and Cam Morris and Michael Miller, who had spot starts a year ago, also are back. Tyler Dodd will back up at the middle infield positions.
Zach Anderson, who started in left field a year ago, returns. Jace Daley, Chris Morris and Jake Youmans are in the mix, as are Ryan Baggot and Marcus Ziegler. Whoever isn’t in the field could wind up taking a turn at bat as a designated hitter, since Kirkland will be DH’ing for pitchers Jesse Osborne and Matt Zettler.
That’s a lot of experience from a team that went 21-12 and won 10 straight down the stretch. And that’s not all of it, especially since the Mustangs had to go as far as the third man on the depth chart in some positions last year.
“The importance of it will be told in the weeks to come,” Kirkland said. “The key to playing those young kids last year is we became successful playing with them.”
Osborne, a preseason all-state pick, will be the Mustangs’ No. 1 starting pitcher. Zettler, valuable out of the bullpen during the playoffs, will assume the No. 2 starting role, and Stephen Vaughn and Anderson may be in line for the third starter. Vaughn and Travis Wooten likely will see time at first base.
“We’ve got a staff about seven deep,” Kirkland said. “They’ll get tested early.”
South Effingham opens the season Monday at Statesboro, expected to be a contender for the Region 3-AAAA title.
There’s also Lee County and Evans on the slate, as are a pair of defending state champs — Calvary Day (Class A) and Greenbrier (Class AAAA). Fellow Class AAA powers Blessed Trinity and Carrollton await, too.
“I love it,” Kirkland said. “I love the schedule. After 10 games in, I may be changing my mind. I’d put our schedule against anybody’s in the state.”