Eagles looking forward to making return trip to World Series
TURN TWO n Former Meridian Community College second baseman Allen Winningham (28) looks to make a double-play in this file photo. The Eagles begin the 2001 season this weekend with three games in the Okaloosa Walton Invitational Tournament. Photo by Paula Merritt/The Meridian Star.
By Austin Bishop
Special To The Star
Nobody has to tell Russ McNickle that he has inherited one of the top junior college baseball programs in the nation.
The first-year Meridian Community College head coach has heard plenty about it since he took the job.
McNickle is a veteran assistant who has worked at Mississippi State, Florida Southern and South Florida.
The Eagles, who played in the Junior College World Series for the fifth time in 10 seasons last year, come into the season ranked No. 2 in the country in the NJCAA preseason poll.
McNickle, who will coach third base for the Eagles, said experience on the mound and a solid outfield are two of his team's strong points.
The pitching staff will be handled by assistant coach Mike Federico, who had the same duties under former MCC head coach Scott Berry last year.
Right-hander Martin LaRocca, who came up big down the stretch last year in leading MCC to the Region 23 Championship, to a district title and then into the World Series, is expected to get the nod when the Eagles open their season this weekend on the road.
Also in the three-man rotation at this point are left-hander Justin Bounds, who won eight games last year, and right-hander Brian Reed.
Adam Smith, the brother of former MCC standout shortstop Jason Smith, and Jason Wimberly will also get plenty of chances to show what they can do as starters. Michael Goodson, a sidearmer, will be looked at as the closer.
Others being counted on to rack up some innings on the mound are Curt McLellan, Derek Gillaspy, Chord Robinson and Justin McMullan.
While McNickle said sophomore catcher Chris Knight, a Lamar School graduate, has stepped up big in the fall and has won the starting position, he said the depth at that position concerns him.
Knight got some valuable experience last year when Rusty McDaniels Q who now plays at the University of Southern Mississippi Q was out with an injury at a key point in the season.
Also seeing some action at catcher will be freshmen Trave Hopkins and Chad Bailey.
Playing first base most of the time will be sophomore Dustin Cliburn, who saw some action at third base last season. Former Lamar slugger Robert Daggett will also play some first and could see some action at designated hitter against right-handed pitchers. Another player working at first is Brett Watkins, the son of former MCC standout Larry Watkins.
Temetric Thomas, who played some third last year, is battling for the second base position with Meridian High School's Tyler Scarbrough and sophomore Matt McCleskey.
Freshman Lance Dawkins of Caledonia High School has stepped up to take the starting position at shortstop. Sophomore Josh Raggio will also see some playing time there.
Third base belongs to Antion Gray, who provides a lot of pop at the plate for the Eagles. Left-handed hitter Chris Wright could also see some action at third.
The outfield is full of speed.
Travis Garner, who set the single-season school record for steals in a season last year with 41, will be the starting right fielder. Ben Shannon will play center, while Rory Thornton is set to start in left.
Thomas, Scarbrough and McMullan may also see some action in the outfield.
Going into the season McNickle said Garner would hit lead off with Thornton batting second and Gray third. He said the designated hitter and Cliburn would probably be hitting in the four and five spots, followed by Dawkins, Shannon, Knight and whoever plays second base.
The Eagles open their season with three games in the Okaloosa Walton Invitational this weekend, playing on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. MCC will be taking on 2000 JUCO World Series participant Central Florida, former NJCAA National Champions Miami-Dade and Florida powerhouse Okaloosa-Walton in the round-robin event.
On Feb. 16-18 the Eagles will play host to the Rush Invitational Tournament which features Panola (Texas) Junior College, Faulkner (Ala.) State and Columbia (Tenn.) State.
Another tournament hosted by MCC will be the Rush Classic which will be played Feb. 23-25 and features Meridian, East Central, Jones and East Mississippi in the round-robin event.