The groundhog didn’t see his shadow on Groundhog Day, meaning two things: Spring is right around the corner and so is baseball.
Despite recent bouts of rain, the Liberty County High School Panthers still managed to find some dry ground for pitching, hitting and fielding as they prepare for today’s preseason scrimmage against Bradwell Institute.
The start of the regular season is Feb. 23.
After spending the past two seasons in Region 3-AAA, the Panthers have been thrust into Region 2A-AAAA, which includes several strong baseball programs.
"I’ve checked it out and I think Wayne County, obviously, is going to be real tough because they are coming back from a Final Four appearance last year," Panther baseball coach David Samuel said. "And then we have (Lakeside), Evans, that’s in the other side of our sub-region, and they’re the ones that beat Wayne County out of the Final Four."
Last season, the Yellow Jackets, led by former BI coach Brad Weir, finished 29-5 overall and 10-2 in the region.
The Evans Panthers posted a 29-8 overall record and 15-1 Region 3-AAAA mark before losing to Marist in the finals of the state playoffs.
Last season, the Panthers finished 14-12 overall and 8-4 in Region 3-AAA and were eliminated in the first round of the state playoffs by Columbus.
Samuel said there are no easy marks in the new region. Old foe Richmond Hill, which made the move to Region 2A-AAAA along with the Panthers, has strong pitching. Ware County is coming off a 20-10 season and both Brunswick and Glynn Academy are expected to be solid again.
"There is really no soft team in this region so we have to come out hard in every game," Samuel said, noting that in recent years his team tended to play tougher against better competition.
The Panthers lost two pitchers from their rotation this season after Dylan Connelly transferred, and Chris Rafferty is now set to play for Bradwell Institute.
But Samuel still has right-hander Georgia Southern-signee Joe Watkins, who is expected to be at the top of the Panthers’ rotation followed by Brandon Whitmore.
"Antonio Smith will pitch," Samuel said. "Cameron Harris has been working on his pitching and I’ve really been putting everybody out to work on pitching mechanics because you just never know. Last year, we ran short on pitchers and I’ve told the guys, ‘Even if I can only use you for an inning or two, that will benefit the team and it will take some of the strain off the other guys.’"
Samuel said he also has a few ninth- and tenth-graders who probably will step in and pitch some innings.
Samuel lost solid hitters Cody French and Eddie Chipple to graduation.
"But you look at Trey Sikes and Brandon Whitmore and Cameron (Harris)," he said. "They’ve been working real hard in the off season with some hitting instructors and they’ve improved a lot. Joe is always pretty strong in hitting, and Matt Desbiens is a solid hitter. Antonio Smith played a lot last year and he stepped up and has been working hard too, and Patrick McDonald is looking good in practice right now."
The coach said Sam Wilson also is swinging the bat well and Jovaughn Shuman is coming back after earning All-Region honors last season.
"He’s another guy in the lineup that should be stable," Samuel said. "In the lineup I’m looking at probably seven solid guys right now and I have several guys that can step into the other roles."
Samuel said Desbiens will be his starting catcher and Mike Lovelady will get some time behind the plate as well.
The coach said he has an idea of who will play where but said a few spots are open.
"There are a couple of spots where no one has really stood out and I’ve told them, ‘We are competing for starting spots so you have to really show me what you’ve got,’" Samuel said.
The recent rainfall has made it difficult to get on the field, but Samuel said he is looking forward to today’s scrimmage.
"I’m looking to see who can perform in a game situation," he said. "It’s a game where there is not a lot of pressure on the guys because it doesn’t count toward the standings or their records. But it will give me an opportunity to see who is going to be my right fielder and who can step up to be my everyday third baseman, shortstop, second baseman and other positions. I just want to put the guys in a game situation and let them play some innings and show me what they can do."
The coach said he still wants to win the scrimmage, saying, "It is for bragging rights and Rhett (Hellgren) and I are good competitors and it’s all in good fun with us. But I think for both of us right now it’s just an opportunity to get on the field and play."
Today’s scrimmage is at 5 p.m. at Liberty.