Smackover keeping focus on present

The 2023 season was a tale of two halves for Smackover’s baseball season.

A loss to Harmony Grove on March 30 left the Bucks’ postseason hopes in jeopardy thanks to a 2-4 start in league play.

However, the Bucks turned things around in the second half, finishing 7-1 to qualify for the regional tournament.

But getting past the regional tournament and into the state tournament is something Smackover hasn’t accomplished since 2017, and coach Josh Wesson said his team needs to focus on the task at hand and not the future.

“We don’t harp on it,” Wesson said. “We talk about expectations. Our expectations are to come to work every day and get after it. 

“I think a lot of the times in the past, we’ve gotten caught up in worrying about the postseason and letting that stuff creep into their heads. If this group gets after it every day, things are going to work out. 

“We have the depth, we have the pop in the lineup, we have arms, but they have to go out and take care what’s in front of them now and not look ahead. We did that last year, and our first round through the conference was awful, and we had to fight and claw just to get into postseason play. 

“The next thing you know, we have the one seed from the other side on the ropes because we’re capable of playing. We don’t want to put ourselves in a situation to where we’re focusing on looking down the road instead of just taking care of what’s in front of you. You have to take care of today before you can worry about the future.”

The Bucks, who went 16-10 last year and open the 2024 season on Monday with a home tilt against Crossett, have a seasoned lineup with several four-year starters back.

“This is the year,” Wesson said. “This is the senior-heavy year. These are the guys that were freshmen when I first came back to Smackover. There are five guys in the starting nine that have a lot of experience under their belt.”

Wesson had high praise for his senior class.

“We have great leadership,” Wesson said. “I can’t talk enough about the seniors that we have. They’re seasoned. They’ve seen it. They were thrown into the fire as freshmen, so they understand what our conference is and the daily work that it takes. They do a really good job.”

Wesson said the Bucks, who played their benefit game against Malvern on Friday, are ready to get the season started.

“We’ve had a really good fall and winter,” Wesson said. “The kids are all ready. The weather at this time of the year, we’re just ready to be outside consistently and play another team. They’re tired of facing each other. We’re just ready to go. We’re really excited about it.”

The Bucks have a four-year starter in senior Trace Davis at first base with sophomore Judson Wolfe back at second base after a solid freshman season.

Tanner Mitchell, a senior who has signed with South Arkansas College, will play at shortstop.

The Bucks have a battle for playing time at third base with sophomores Jaden Bryant and Tyler Reeder competing for the job.

“Jaden comes in with a lot of experience,” Wesson said. “He played a lot as a freshman at his previous school. He’s a big strong kid that can really go.”

Senior Cole McNeely, another four-year starter, returns at catcher, although Wesson said Bryant could see playing time there should McNeely be called on to pitch.

In the outfield, the Bucks have four-year starters in seniors Wyatt Parker and Britton Warren, while junior Ethan Tarver returns after a solid second half of the season.

Wesson said sophomores Asher Coley and Ike Eisler enjoyed solid falls, as did junior Dawson Walker.

Smackover’s pitching staff has a wealth of depth with Warren and Bryant being labeled as “1A and 1B” by Wesson for the rotation.

“They’re both going to fill some big innings for us,” Wesson said. 

Parker got his first extensive time on the mound last year.

“He logged a lot of innings for us last year,” Wesson said. “It was really his first year to get on the mound, and he had a great year.”

Davis got some work in during the summer with Arkansas Pulpwood, and Wesson has been pleased with his progress.

“He had a really good winter on the mound,” Wesson said. “He pitched some for Pulpwood last summer. He’s thrown really well in his bullpen sessions in live AB’s.”

Wolfe, Coley and Reeder are a trio of sophomores that will be counted to log innings for the Bucks with Wesson saying Coley has impressed in workouts.

“I’m really excited about him,” Wesson said. “He’s got pretty good velo and he mixes it well. We’re excited about that.”

Mitchell and McNeely could also be deployed as late-inning weapons.

“I don’t want to categorize them as closers, but they may come in and give one or two,” Wesson said. “They’ve both done a really good job.”

Harmony Grove went undefeated in conference play last year, but only two games separated the next four schools in the standings, and Wesson said the league should be very competitive.

“It’s going to be a competitive league again,” Wesson said. “DeWitt was really young last year. We split with those guys. They’ve got some really good ballplayers. They’re well-coached. 

“Drew Central has probably got what I would consider one of the best 1-2 punches on the mound. I really like (Drew) Burton kid for them. He does everything. He plays every sport, he’s just a great kid and he’s really good on the mound. They’ll be in the mix. 

“You can never count out Grove. Coach (Blake) Williams does a good job and they’ve got Caleb (Johnson), who is one of the best athletes in south Arkansas. He’s good. Mason Morgan has gained velo and gotten better and better each year. 

“McGehee has got a lefty that we struggled with last year. We split with all of those teams but Grove last year, so I look forward to it being another year where everybody is competitive again.”

For the Bucks to have a successful season, Wesson said there would be several keys.

“We’re going to have to hit the baseball. We’re going to have to put up some runs,” Wesson said. “Our pitchers are going to have to keep us in games. 

“They have to understand that they have to trust their offense and fill up the zone. We can’t give free bases. 

“We had a lot of games last year that plagued us with walks, hit by pitches, stuff like that. I think if they just go out there and pound the zone and let the defense work and trust that when we get our three outs and our offense gets in there, we’re going to be OK. 

“We pride ourselves on defense. We do a pretty good with that. If we take care of business offensively, and our pitchers trust our lineup and we go out there and make the routine plays that we need to make, I feel pretty good about it. I think the team understands that.” 

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