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Baseball: Back on the field – Eagles break in new squad

By Reece Waddell | Published Wednesday, February 21, 2018
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Spring Cleaning

SPRING CLEANING – The Decatur baseball team takes batting practice. The Eagles are working to fine tune their game before their first tournament this weekend. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

After a run to the Class 4A Region II final last season, the Decatur Eagles start the 2018 campaign with several fresh faces in the dugout.

Since leaving the field after its season-ending loss to Texarkana Pleasant Grove, Decatur graduated several starters from last year and changed coaches.

The Eagles brought in former NFL quarterback Tommy Maddox to lead the program with Brian Tickell leaving for Kennedale. Maddox had spent the previous two seasons as an assistant for Grapevine, helping lead the Mustangs to back-to-back trips to the state finals. Grapevine won the title in 2016 and finished runner-up in 2017.

Maddox takes over a team that went 27-12 and beat Dallas Pinkston, Melissa, Sanger and Gilmer in the playoffs.

“Every year is new,” Maddox said. “You have to flip the page. You have to move on. You have to see what this team is like and what their personality is compared to last year.”

Catching Up

CATCHING UP – Decatur players toss the baseball before the start of practice Monday. The Eagles are slated to begin the season Thursday, pending weather. Decatur is coming off a trip to the 4A Region II final last season. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Decatur used dominant pitching and nearly flawless defense to make its run last year, leaning heavily on ace Bryce Elder (7-2, 0.603 ERA and 97 strikeouts), who is now pitching at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Eagles will turn to junior Wilson Hicks to assume the No. 1 spot in the rotation. The southpaw tossed 53 innings and compiled a 7-2 record with a 1.05 ERA last year. The Oklahoma State commit also fanned 55 batters on the season.

“We need [Hicks] to be consistent and be who he is,” Maddox said. “You watch him in anything he does, whether it’s football, basketball or baseball, and he’s a very even-keeled kid. Just his experience and leadership, those are things we’ll benefit from as much as him being on the mound. I’m excited to see what kind of year he has.

“Lefties have a lot of movement on the ball. I think the thing that’s important for him is being able to throw all three pitches for strikes in any count and keeping hitters off-balance. I think he’s aware of that, understands it and knows how to do it really well.”

Although there has been plenty of turnover on the Eagles’ roster, Hicks’ battery partner remains the same. Sophomore Dayne Chapman returns as Decatur’s catcher. He expects Hicks to remain a force at the top of their rotation.

“Pretty much every pitch [Hicks] throws is good,” Chapman said. “He throws hard and throwing from the left side, there’s lots of movement on his pitches.”

Maddox has full confidence in Chapman’s ability behind the plate.

“Normally [his age] would be something you’d be concerned with, but as a freshman, being able to catch and play in a region final – all of a sudden you grow up in a hurry,” Maddox said. “I don’t think situations will be too big for him. It will be fun to have him back there.”

Offensively, Decatur spent a majority of the offseason working on putting balls in play and making contact.

The Eagles averaged 4.9 runs per game last season, but struggled at times scratching across runs in the playoffs. In their four playoff losses, the Eagles did not score more than two runs.

Maddox has emphasized not taking big swings every time at the plate and having his players shorten their swing.

“I think there’s a lot of guys who want to see how hard they can hit the ball instead of making contact,” Maddox said. “[We need to] just cut down on the strikeouts, put the ball in play and force teams to make 21 outs against [us]. That’s been our emphasis. Stay on balance, stay on the pitch and use the middle of the field.”

Decatur will play in its first tournament this weekend in Iowa Park. The Eagles take on Henrietta and Old High Thursday. On Friday, Decatur will face Big Spring and Burkburnett. The Eagles wrap up the tournament against Iowa Park Saturday.

Decatur will play in two more out-of-town tournaments the next two weekends before coming home to play Denton Braswell March 13. Maddox said he intends to use the next three weeks of tournaments to evaluate his team.

“We’ll be young, but I think we’ll be talented,” Maddox said. “The good thing is some of the juniors had roles last year on a team that played very well. We’ve got some experience even though we’re pretty young.”

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