With the temperature registering in the high 30's and a chilly north wind blowing, the Jacksonville Fightin' Indian baseball team braved the unseasonably cold conditions outside to go through a pre-season practice at Summer Norman Field Wednesday afternoon.
“We can deal with the cold, it's the wet stuff that causes us problems,” Jacksonville head baseball coach Mike Eckles, said optimistically.
Eckles is in his 24th season as a coach, having served as a head baseball coach for 14 of those seasons.
His coaching experience should come in handy as he continues to overhaul the Indian baseball program, who struggled for several seasons prior to his arrival last year.
“I'm excited about this season,” Eckles said. “The off-season work ethic our kids have brought has got stronger since last year and their mental focus is better, too.”
Eckles said that his players are having to earn their stripes during the preseason, regardless if they were a starter last year or not.
“We're making the kids compete,” Eckles said. “It doesn't matter what they did last year, those that perform well for us this year will be the ones that are on the field. I've found this system to promote kids practicing hard and doing whatever they need to do to work their way into the starting line-up.”
Eckles said that he expects to use as many as six pitchers, with sophomores Cash Cleaver and Mason Smith expected to see a lot of duty as starters and senior Brayden Rawlinson getting the nod coming out of the bullpen.
“There's no question that our pitching staff will be young,” Eckles said. “But in the next 2-3 years I think will be right there with the rest of the teams in our league.”
Mike Sexton, one of five seniors on the Tribe's roster, is expected to split time behind the plate with Smith.
Brad Triplett and Bryce Cundieff are the first basemen, while Dylan Sexton is expected to see a lot of time at second base.
Rawlinson and Joshua Cuba are expected to handle the duties at shortstop.
Third base will be worked by Smith and Dylan Walker.
The Tribe's outfield trio will consist of Chris Holcomb (LF), Cleaver (CF) and Guadalupe Muniz (RF).
Weather permitting, Jacksonville is slated to host Center and Bullard in scrimmages that are slated to begin at 11 a.m. Saturday.
The Tribe will open the regular season Feb. 20-22 by taking part in the Chapel Hill Tournament.
The Indians' home opener will be played at 7 p.m. on Feb. 25.Chapel Hill will provide the opposition.
Jacksonville fans can also look forward to the Tribesmen hosting the Jacksonville Indian Classic on Feb. 27-Mar.1.
Teams from Center, Pine Tree, Edgewood and Pollak Central will make up the field in that event. Jacksonville will open tourney play at 6 p.m. on Feb. 27 against Edgewood.
The weekend after the Indian Classic, Jacksonville will play in the Quitman Tournament.
District 16-4A action gets under way at 7 p.m. on March 18 when Nacogdoches is scheduled to come to town.
Prior to closing down the regular season on April 25 at Corsicana, the Injuns will step out of conference play to test Rusk at 1 p.m., Saturday April 19. That game will take place in Rusk.
“There is a lot of excitement around here as we go about changing the image of Jacksonville baseball,” Eckles said. “We are miles ahead of where we were this time last year. These kids are hungry to win and they are doing everything that I'm asking them to do to get ready for the season.”