Driving by Hartselle’s Sparkman Park with the windows down Friday afternoon, one could hear high-pitched “pings” from the parking lot.
The distinct sound of aluminum bats kissing baseballs — a reminder that spring is near.
And baseball season has arrived.
High school baseball teams statewide open the new season today, and here in Lawrence, Limestone and Morgan counties, several area teams are participating in large tournaments.
Athens and East Limestone are hosting their annual baseball tournament, while Hartselle’s baseball team is participating in the Huntsville vs. Birmingham Challenge.
For Hartselle, the new season brings the program’s usual high expectations. Since 1990, the perennial baseball power has won seven state titles, and the Tigers return a talented, senior-laden roster from a team that a year ago advanced to the Class 5A semifinals.
Hartselle opens pool play in the Huntsville vs. Birmingham Challenge today at Buckhorn and Hazel Green. The Tigers host Hoover on Tuesday, and Spain Park on Wednesday.
“Around here, opening day can never get here soon enough,” said Hartselle coach William Booth, who is heading into his 26th season with the Tigers. “Our schedule is tough. Very tough. We have a chance to play 70 games if we win enough. Our guys are excited. They’re itching to get started.”
The players echoed those sentiments.
“Opening day, it’s the beginning of the greatest time of year,” Hartselle first baseman Easton Chenault said. “All year long, there’s no telling how much time we devote to getting ready for baseball, and opening day is when you finally get to put that work to use. We’ve been waiting a whole year for this, and we can’t wait to get out on the field and start playing.”
At Hartselle, baseball season is always a special time. With the program sustaining a high level of success for more than two decades, a rare baseball culture has been created in the city. Fans keep up with the team. People with no current ties to the program come out and watch home games.
And the Tigers are expected to compete for state titles.
This season’s team fits the bill.
Hartselle returns seven players who were regulars last season in the starting lineup, several experienced pitchers and lots of baseball experience.
Catcher Chris Brown, a UAH signee, outfielder Deacon Aldridge and shortstop Brett Blackwood were among the area’s best hitters last season, while designated hitter Blake Slayton, who is returning from shoulder surgery, gives Hartselle power in the middle of the lineup.
“With the talent we have this team, and our work ethic, I think we could be something special,” Chenault said. “There’s great chemistry. Everyone is on the same page. We’re going into this with high expectations for ourselves because all of us feel like we have a chance to do something special.”
Hartselle’s two Division I signees will not be available for opening day. Right-handed pitcher Jackson Smith, a South Carolina signee, is recovering from offseason knee surgery, but could return by midseason.
Center fielder Colton Ord, a South Alabama signee and The Daily’s 2012 Class 4A-6A baseball player of the year, is out with a hamstring injury and is expected to miss the first few weeks.
“As with every team, being able to stay healthy is a factor,” Booth said. “But if we can stay healthy, then the sky is the limit for this group.”
Most of the area’s large-school programs will open the season today with pool play in the Athens-East Limestone tournament.
Austin, Decatur, Athens, East Limestone, Ardmore, West Limestone, James Clemens and Madison Academy are in the eight-team field.
For East Limestone, the tournament is more than just an opening day event. It’s a homecoming.
When East Limestone opens the tournament with Decatur at 4 p.m., it will be the first the Indians home game since April 27, 2011, when an E-F5 tornado destroyed the school’s baseball and softball facilities.
“Our guys can’t wait,” East Limestone coach Bradley Craig said. “For most of these guys, this has been a long time coming. They dealt with the adversity of playing away from home for all of last season, but now all of that is over, and they’re excited about playing their first home game in two years.”
On Feb. 28, East Limestone school officials are holding a homecoming ceremony for both the baseball and softball teams before their regular season home openers against James Clemens.
Plenty of storylines
Rising stars: One of those centers around West Morgan star Trey Mathis. As a junior last season, Mathis led the state in home runs and was selected by the Alabama Sports Writers Association as the Class 3A Hitter of the Year.
Another area player gaining attention is Ardmore pitcher Cody Reed. According to several coaches, the 6-foot-3 left-hander has a live fastball in the upper 80s, and he’s building a reputation as one of the area’s most promising players.
Rising teams: There are also a few teams that potentially could make playoff runs. Athens Bible, West Morgan and Hatton all return several key players from 2012 playoff teams, while Austin has a large group of underclassmen coming up who coach Paul Averitt believes could have a bright future.
New coaches: Three area teams are opening the season with new coaches. Jake Hembree was hired during the summer to replace longtime coach Brent Gillespie, while Craig is headed into his first season at East Limestone.
At Decatur Heritage, Steve Meek is taking over for Steve Atchley, who resigned following last season to focus solely on his responsibilities as the school’s athletics director.
Contact Justin Graves at 256-340-2460 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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