Photo courtesy of Ted Melton.
Will Battersby is one of Spain Park’s top returning pitchers, and will be relied heavily upon in 2017.
The road in Class 7A baseball is tough. Just ask Will Smith, head baseball coach at Spain Park High School.
After winning the state championship in 2014, the Jaguars have failed to reach the postseason in the two subsequent seasons, thanks to Hewitt-Trussville, Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills being in the same area.
Last season, Hewitt-Trussville went on to win the state championship, while Vestavia Hills was the top-ranked team in the class for much of the season.
Hewitt-Trussville and Vestavia Hills are no longer in the same area, but Oak Mountain and Huffman enter Class 7A, Area 6.
Oak Mountain is the team that knocked off the Rebels in the first round of the playoffs in 2016.
“This year will be no different,” Smith said. “Oak Mountain will be one of the favorites to make a run. Mountain Brook has everybody back. You’re going to have to play well to make the playoffs.”
In 2016, Smith thought the Jags showed promise, but a few runs here and there proved to be the difference in the six-game area schedule.
“We didn’t make the playoffs, but there were times I thought we were a playoff team, and other times I thought we weren’t very deserving,” Smith said. “But when you’re in the area with us, if you make the playoffs, you’ve got a chance to win the whole thing.”
The state champion has hailed from Area 6 two of the past three seasons, and Smith mentioned Mountain Brook among the top teams in the state two years ago, along with Vestavia last season.
As far as Spain Park’s chances this season, the Jags welcome back their top two left-handed pitchers in Will Battersby and Spencer Graham. Hayden Freeman held down the second slot in the rotation slot last season, and Graham will be given the first chance to secure that spot. As far as Battersby goes, Smith said he is working to improve his ability to finish games well and not allow slips in the final innings.
“You really need to have three or four guys to make a deep run in the playoffs,” Smith said. “We’re going to have to have two or three guys step up.”
Smith said he feels like his team will be ahead of its normal schedule due to the ability to do some fall work. That will help, as the Jags have to replace five starters on the diamond.
Kevin Hopkins primarily played left field last spring, and will likely slide over to man center. Justin McClure and Jacob Rich return to make up the left side of the infield. Those three are the only mainstays from last year’s lineup who return, and all three are seniors.
Michael Purser and Will Evans platooned in a few different spots last season and are expected to take on a position full time this season.
Baseball in the Birmingham area boasts a number of high-level teams, and Spain Park is firmly in that mix of teams with potential to be a contender each year, something its head coach embraces.
“Nobody puts more pressure on the program than myself and our coaches,” Smith said. “You create standards and expectations.”
The Jags begin play Feb. 20 when they host Shelby County.