Don’t expect many balls coming off Jackson County bats to fly out of ball parks this spring. But the Panthers will do their best to give opposing teams fits on the base paths.
The Panthers, coming off a 9-18 season and losing all but two bats from their lineup, plan to use speed and aggressive base running to their advantage in year two under coach Matt Bolt.
“Our identity this year is we want to put as much pressure on the defense as possible from an offensive standpoint, and we want to play really good defense — throw strikes and play good defense,” Bolt said.
Bolt said his team wasn’t a very good base running team in 2019 despite stealing 68 bases in 73 attempts (most of those base stealers have graduated). With small, quick, young players, the Panthers have focused attention on their leads and jumps to keep opposing defenses from becoming comfortable this year. Bolt said several Panthers can run sub 7-second 60s and he plans to play to that advantage.
“I’m very, very aggressive,” Bolt said. “I truly believe that it’s important to put pressure on the defense.”
Only Ayden Griswold and Grant Hardegree return from last year’s lineup, so finding ways to score runs with a new crop of players is a must. That’s where aggressive base running could serve as an equalizer.
“We’re trying to find ways to nickel and dime people the best that we can,” Bolt said.
Among the losses from last year’s team were three four-year starters and seven starters overall. This stands to be a young Panther team with a learning curb. Or as Bolt put it:
“We are teaching the game of baseball more than it’s probably ever been taught here before,” Bolt said.
Still, the Panthers could have the pitching to sustain the team if supported by improved defense. Bolt points to a staff of eight to 10 pitchers who can throw strikes. That list includes Tyler Zipfel, Kedric Zimmer, Jack Thomas, Tyler Vaughn, Hardegree, Nick Streuer, Bryce Beverly and Jake Stinchcomb. Bolt does not downplay the pitching depth.
“This might be the most depth that we’ve had on the pitching staff since our Final Four run,” said Bolt, referencing the Panthers’ 2016 team.
Zipfel and Zimmer return as the team’s top starting pitchers. Zipfel used just 58 pitches over five innings in a recent scrimmage. Zimmer is one of the state’s rarest commodities as an ambidextrous pitcher.
“He’s got three pitches that he can throw for a strike from both sides,” Bolt said. “He’s somebody that is special.”
Jackson County is motivated for a bounce-back this spring after finishing 2019 under .500 and missing the state playoffs for the first time since 2012. Bolt said the experience “was tough” after the program had become accustomed to being a state-tournament participant.
“They know the expectations of this program, and last year we did not live up to that,” Bolt said. “A lot of that is on me … I learned a lot last year. It was not a comforting feeling knowing that was the results of my first year as a head coach, but it’s also something that has driven me to help these kids.”
Reaching the state playoffs this season is a major goal, according to Bolt.
“It’s a goal, and it’s an expectation,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy. Our region is very, very difficult … I respect every single program in our region,” Bolt said.
Jackson County will face multiple Class AAAAAA and Class AAAAAAA schools this month to prepare for region play. That includes Allatoona, an Elite Eight team from Class AAAAAA in 2019. Bolt said he’s excited for his squad to play these teams.
“It’s going to be challenging, but I think our kids are going to get after it,” Bolt said. “We have to challenge ourselves.”
Overall team chemistry stands out as a strong suit as this team sets its sights on a new season.
“We have some really good kids that have shown up every single day ready to go to work since September,” Bolt said. “They’re truly a pleasure to be around.”