Sterlington Panthers Baseball Preview

As Monday's season opener approaches, coach Mark Sims' first concern is the health of three key players.

Sterlington will begin the campaign without shortstop Carson Clowers (jr.) and right fielder Brooks Rushworth (jr.) due to illness and injury. Meanwhile, center fielder Jacob Barr (sr.) is trying to play through a torn labrum and fractured wrist.

"We have to survive until we get those guys cleared," Sims said.

Clowers hit .311, scored 26 runs, was a perfect 11-for-11 in stolen bases and struck out only seven times in 108 at bats last season. Rushworth produced a .301 batting average with a home run and 16 RBI.

Sims is hoping to have Clowers in the lineup in time for the Trey Altick Tournament on March 2.

Rushworth, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, will start out as a designated hitter upon his return.

Next to the health issues, the search for a fourth starting pitcher will be a focal point in the early going.

Pitching was the team's strength last year as the staff compiled a 2.15 team ERA.

Spencer Davis (5-4, 2.52) has been a fixture on the mound for the past three years. Drawing 12 starts as a junior, he worked a staff-high 61 innings and threw four complete games.

Trey Rugg (5-3, 1 save, 1.68 ERA) was spectacular as a freshman, striking out 28 and walking only seven in 41.2 innings.

Sophomore Luke Denman looks to fill the third slot after compiling a 4-1 record in 17.2 innings.

All three pitched well as the Panthers dropped a three-game second round series to eventual state runner-up St. Charles 5-1, 2-4, 2-3.

"Denman gave us some good innings in the playoff series," Sims said. "Our pitching gave us a chance to win all three of those games."

Adam Tubbs and Zack Jones, a pair of freshmen with live arms, are among those auditioning for the final spot in the rotation. Sims has a track record of playing freshmen.

"Spencer Davis pitched in the quarterfinals as a freshman," Sims said. "Rugg and Denman threw Games 2 and 3 against St. Charles as freshmen. Barr and Dopson started as freshmen. I'm not scared to put a freshman out there. I'd rather not, but I will."

Also getting looks on the bump are seniors Will Wohlers and Nathan McClain, and juniors Will Rushing and Taylor Martin. Tubbs and Rushing are the only left-handers on the staff. Luke Fluitt is working his way back after missing the entire 2016 season due to shoulder surgery.

"Hopefully, Luke can regain the form from his freshman year," Sims said.

Tucker Allen (jr.) and freshman Brayden Hough are the catchers.

"Tucker's been with us three years now," Sims said. "Hough is going to be one of the better catchers in the area before he leaves here."

Four-year starter Devon Murphy, the 2015 District 2-2A MVP, leaves a void in the middle infield.

"Any time you lose a four-year starter, it's a big loss," Sims said. "Devon batted up and down the lineup, played a couple of different positions and knew how to run the defense."

First base remains a toss-up.

Jarrett McDonald (jr.) and Bastrop transfer Kevin Alfaro (sr.) will open the season at second and shortstop, respectively. McDonald (.426, 4 HR, 26 RBI) led the team in most batting categories while playing left field.

"Kevin Alfaro is a pretty slick fielder," Sims said. "Second base is probably McDonald's best position.

ULM signee Dalton Dopson (.333, 13 RBI) begins his fourth season as the starting third baseman.

"I feel comfortable with our infield," Sims said. "We're not asking them to make highlight plays. We're just asking them to make the routine play, and let us come hit."

Barr will be flanked in the outfield Monday night by a pair of sophomores, Denman in left and Davis Johnson in right.

"They are both natural infielders, but because they can hit, they are going to start in the outfield," Sims said of Denman and Johnson. "McDonald can always play left field, but I think his natural position is second base. If you can hit, we're going to find somewhere to put you because we have to be able to put more runs on the board."

Sterlington never quite got untracked at the plate en route to a 15-12 finish.

"We've struggled for the last couple of years to get nine guys on the same page," Sims said. "We have to have more than two or three guys carrying the load. We have to get 1-9 consistency. We have to put the ball in play and get quality at bats up and down the order."

After having roughly a third of the 2016 season canceled due to record rainfall, the Panthers have taken advantage of an unseasonably warm winter.

"We never could get into a rhythm last year," Sims said. "We had the flooding, and there was no way to make all of the games up. Usually, kids get about 130 at bats over the course of the year. Last year, we were doing good to get 100 at bats.

"We've been able to get some good work in and play a lot of intrasquad games. Most guys are going to have 20-something at bats before we get to Ouachita."