2019 was not a memorable one for the Madison County baseball team.
The Red Raiders struggled to a last place finish in Region 8-AAAA. The team never seemed to get out of the gate despite a mature roster of 10 seniors.
Based on head coach Chad Gillespie's enthusiasm, fans of the Red Raiders should expect the 2020 team to be unrecognizable from the 2019 squad. Gillespie says this team is solid at all four aspects of the game and believes it will have a shot to win its second Region 8-AAAA Championship in four years.
"Really and truly, I feel like we’re going to excel in all four aspects of the game," he said. "Hitting, base running, pitching and defense. We’re a pretty fast team, we have a lot of team speed. We’re going to put a lot of pressure on pitchers and catchers on the other team.
"Really and truly, if we throw strikes and command the strike zone, team’s will have to be really good and play really well to beat us. We’re ready to get it going."
RADICAL IMPROVEMENTS ON THE MOUND
Great pitching was a hallmark of Gillespie's Madison County teams until last year. Madison County's rotation struggled with allowing walks and those free baserunners led to runs for opponents.
Only two members of that starting lineup return for 2020, Garrett Dowell and Austin Baddeley. Gillespie says both guys took their struggles last year to heart and have worked to get better.
“Those guys (Baddeley and Dowell) really worked hard," Gillespie said. "(They) really took it upon themselves to say ‘that’s not going to happen this year.’ We’ve done a lot of different things with our pitching staff to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
Meanwhile a larger staff of reliable arms around Dowell and Baddeley have competed against them and each other to make the entire bullpen better. Gillespie said competition within the pitching staff was a focus in the offseason and preseason.
"We want our guys to understand that when it’s their time to go up on the mound, their job is to give us a chance to win," he said. “Throw the ball over the plate, don’t try to be too cute with it. Challenge the hitters, because a really good hitter in high school is a .300 or .400 hitter. That means only three or four out of 10 at bats, they’ll hit. Hitting is a very difficult thing, but if a pitcher is constantly walking people, the odds of the other team scoring runs go up exponentially.”
Going into the 2020 season, Madison County has a four-man starting rotation consisting of Baddely, Dowell, Russ Bray and Jarrett Moore. However, Gillespie says there are other pitchers he trusts in starting roles. He mentioned Stephen Brooks, Chris Wilbanks and Cooper Brown as pitchers he feels can give the Red Raiders a chance to win.
TEAM UNITES AROUND SENIOR LEADERSHIP
Even though last year's squad had 10 seniors, most of the key players were juniors, including the aforementioned starting pitchers, as well as Adam Echols, Colby Smith and Will Whitehead. The current senior group combines for 79 total innings pitched and 62 strikeouts on the mound, and 84 hits at the plate.
“We’re in the stage of our program, to where every year, we have got six or seven seniors," Gillespie said. "There’s eight seniors in this senior class, and pretty much every one of them will play a key part of our success. Last year, we didn’t rely on a lot of seniors. They were there and they gave us good leadership, but our go-to guys were all juniors.
“Out of our first seven guys in our lineup, six of them are seniors. We have a senior leading off, a senior in the two hole, a senior in the three hole … We have a lot of seniors, we have a lot of guys who have been here for four years and know what we expect."
Gillespie's optimism about the team goes beyond its senior leadership. He's admittedly surprised by how united and driven the team was through the offseason.
“I think we’re going to surprise some people. They’ve kind of surprised me," he said. "They’ve really came together as a team. Everybody enjoys each other, everybody respects each other. Everybody wants to be around each other. A lot of times, if that happens, magic can happen. Everyone wants to be there. They all hold each other accountable.
“On Sunday, to give an example, I came to the field to do some work and there were six varsity baseball players here, hitting in the cages. They just wanted to be here. They’re chomping at the bits to play.”
POWER AND FINESSE LEADING THE ORDER
The top of Madison County's order features the speed of Dowell and Baddeley, the consistent contact of Echols, and the sheer power of sophomore Eli Akins. Gillespie had a lot to say about his first four hitters.
Dowell, the deceptive speedster, leads off, putting his .483 on-base percentage to good use. Baddeley hits after him. His .414 batting average was the highest on the team last year, and his .543 slugging is the best among returning players.
“Garrett had one of the highest on-base percentages of any player that we had last year," Gillespie said. "At the end of the year, he batted .424. He’s 6-4, but he’s pretty much the fastest kid we have on the team. He puts the ball in play, he doesn’t strike out much.
“Austin was our leader last year at the plate. There were a couple of series where they couldn’t get him out. If we could have gotten anything going with anybody else in those couple of series, we would have been in the state playoffs last year.”
The power starts to come in with Echols. His consistency at making contact makes him interchangeable with Baddeley, but he showed a tendency last year of succeeding with runners on base. After him is Akins, a new face in the varsity lineup who brings a lot of power.
“Adam is our all-around hitter," Gillespie said. "He’s tough to get out, he can hit it. They (Echols and Baddeley) both need to be in the two-hole. We basically just flipped a coin. Adam is very good with hitting with runners on base. He takes what the pitcher gives him, he has some power, and he’s gotten stronger.
“Eli has really surprised a lot of us. He’s about 6-4, about 225 lbs., I’ve been around the game a long time and the ball comes off his bat about as good as anybody I’ve ever seen. He’s got really good hands and can hit the ball out at any given time. He’s hit several home runs here in practice that you have to admire.”