By Jason Avery
If there is one certainty for the Smackover baseball program as the 2018 season opens, it’s that change has arrived.
With the same number of freshmen as their are seniors on the roster, the Bucks will be counting on a bevy of younger players to fill vacancies left by graduation.
"We have four seniors and three of the four are returning starters," said Smackover coach B.J. Greene. "We've got a lot of sophomores and just a few juniors and three or four freshmen. This is the lowest number we've had since I've been here.
“I think if you have an outlook on our season, we're going to take some growing pains. We keep preaching that it's not a sprint, it's a marathon.
"Our big thing is we're hosting the state tournament, so we've got something to play for. You don't want to host it and not be able to play in it at your own place."
Greene said that the Bucks’ season could be viewed more on the growth of the team as opposed to their record.
“Every coach is going to tell you that you want to win every game that you play, but we tell our kids all the time that this year might not be one of those years that you can judge your season by wins and losses," Greene said.
"I think we're going to judge our season no matter how many wins or how many losses if we're getting to play here in the state tournament. That's going to be what we'll be rated on.”
With a team that is young and lacks game experience, Greene weighed which route he wanted to take with the Bucks’ schedule, but he decided to challenge his team in the hopes the experience will make them better by the end of the year.
“We picked the harder route. Our schedule is loaded,” Greene said. “We've got a lot of tough games early, but it's in the hopes that we get them playing well at the of the year."
With the graduation of Beau Burson, seniors Cade Schibler and Tucker Evans rank as the top returnees on the pitching staff.
Schibler (6-6, 3.35 ERA) picked up some key wins down the stretch and settled in as the Bucks’ No. 2 starter, while Evans (2-3, 23 SO in 26 1/3 IP) will be heavily relied upon.
Cody Smith, a junior who logged nine innings as a sophomore last year, likely will be used in a closing role, and the Bucks have several youngsters that could play a vital role as the season progresses.
Sophomores Josh Saulsbury and Baylor Brumley both got varsity innings as freshmen, and Jacob Eubanks likely will follow suit this spring as a freshman contributor.
Seniors Colt Aycock and Nick Impson, as well as juniors Noah Wilson and Forrest Harrison also are in the mix to see time on the mound.
"We have a diverse group of kids, but velocity-wise, we have a lot of kids in the same area in the 78, 79 range," Greene said. "We don't have a Beau Burson that's getting up to 85, 86. Coach (Jeff) Burson has worked with them and dropped a couple of our kids down to three-quarters.
“I think that's going to help them get outs, and he's working on some pitches that are diving in and away from hitters.
"We're just not going to be guys that go out there and throw it by you, we're going to be guys that are going to try and work low in the zone and try to get a lot of ground balls for our defense to field."
Versatility will be a critical factor for the Bucks given who could be pitching on an given day.
"When guys are on the mound, different people are going to have to play," Greene said.
When he wasn’t pitching, Schibler (.273 BA, 20 RBIs) served as the Bucks’ catcher, but the emergence of sophomore Jackson Cook could allow the senior to play at shortstop or right field if necessary.
"He really took a huge leap for us this summer in legion baseball,” Greene said of Cook. “I have the utmost confidence for him to be back there."
With Brennan McKnight’s graduation, the Bucks will be breaking in a new first baseman with Smith (.311 BA, 12 RBIs), Brumley (.267 BA, 11 RBIs) and sophomore Braden Doherty expected to split time there.
Smackover has a trio of players in the mix at second base with Saulsbury, sophomore Matt Impson and junior Alex Burris all vying for playing time with Weston Smith’s graduation.
Smackover will also have a new shortstop with Clay Stringer’s graduation with Eubanks in the mix along with Saulsbury and Schibler also getting work at that spot.
Nick Impson is the lone returning starter back on the infield at third base, but Greene said sophomore Jordan Brock could see playing time there thanks to a good offseason and spring.
In the outfield, Wilson, a transfer from Magnolia, has solidified left field.
Brumley (.267 BA, 11 RBIs), Harrison and Evans (.278 BA, 1 HR, 14 RBIs) are all candidates to see playing time in center field.
In right field, Evans is a returning starter, but Schibler could also see playing time there as well.
Freshman Landen Wallingsford, a transfer from Harmony Grove, along with fellow freshman Bailey Rivers also could see playing time as well.
"We have an assortment of players," Greene said. "We have some real big guys, then we have Jacob Eubanks who is a freshman who could be at shortstop and pitch that might be about 5-foot-3. He might be our three-hole hitter because he can do that.”
As far as the conference is concerned, Greene said there are several contenders for the league crown.
"I think if you had to pick a clear-cut team looking at people on paper and what they're returning from last year, you've got to pick Junction City as No. 1," Greene said.
"(Keelan) Hodge is going to be the best pitcher in our conference, and he's one of the better pitchers in South Arkansas right now. I think we'll have a shot at it.
“I think Fordyce is going to have a chance. I think McGehee is the sleeper team in our conference. They made a little bit of noise at the end of last year, and they return everybody. I think it's going to be a dogfight for the top four seeds."
For the Bucks to have a solid season, Greene said how his team handles the daily grind of the game will be a factor to watch.
"I think our kids have to approach every day for itself," Greene said. "We can't be too high or too low. We've got to be right there in the middle.
“We're going to have high moments and we're going to have low moments. We've got to fight through them.
“We've told our kids that there's going to be days where we're going to lose, but we've got to come back out and play the next day.
“The big key is it's not a sprint, it's a marathon. We've got to be playing well at the end of the year. That's going to be our goal and our motto for the entire season."