By BOB REDD
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Since 1937 Mitchell Stadium has been the home of the Bluefield Beavers football team. Tuesday afternoon and numerous other times this late winter it has been the practice home of the Beavers’ baseball team.
Due to wet grounds at Bowen Field and the George McGonagle practice field above Bowen, the Beavers have turned to practices in the school’s gymnasium and on the field turf at the football stadium. Weather permitting, the Beavers will play their opening game of the season this afternoon at Mount View.
Last season the Beavers were a top-10 team throughout much of the season and fell to eventual state champion Wyoming East in the sectional championship. Starters Brad Fox, Donnie Lee Robbins, Kyle Shepherd and Jordan Hargraves have all graduated, but sixth year head coach Justin Gilbert does not have a bare cupboard.
“Donnie and Kyle were our work horses on the mound and we will miss them, but we’ve got younger kids I feel pretty good about when it comes to pitching, kids that were freshmen last year that now have a year of experience,” Gilbert said.
Two of those younger kids are Trevor Mullins and R.J. Bourne, both sophomores. Also in the mix on the mound will be junior Justin Lightfoot and seniors Justin Mariotti and Andrew Siegel.
“We’ve got five to six guys right now that we feel pretty good about,” Gilbert noted. “But those guys look pretty good when we throw indoors. I feel pretty good about our pitching considering what we lost last year. We will just have to see once we get on the field.”
Going around the horn the Beavers look to have Lightfoot at first, along with Caleb Pennington. Logan Lineberry and Tyler Brooks will hold down second. Mullins and Siegel will play short and at third Siegel and Bourne have been rotating.
Moving to the outfield, Mariotti is a three-year starter in center. He will be flanked to his left by either Justin Carter or Christian Oster and in right by Siegel or J.T. Roberts.
Cody Goins has a claim on the catcher’s position, held down the past four years by Fox, by Randy Maxey and Cole Honaker are available when and if needed.
“We have got a little bit of depth in spots,” Gilbert said. “I feel good with the depth at pitching. We will just have to see once we get outside. Practicing here on the turf and hitting indoors, things look pretty good, but everything looks good in a controlled environment.”
At the plate Fox and Robbins are gone, but Gilbert is not in panic mode.
“With Brad (Fox), Donnie (Robbins) and those guys, they were .400 hitters and we relied on them,” Gilbert commented. “I feel like this year we are a little more balanced. Every lineup you look at in the past, you have a block of good hitters. This year I have got nine pretty solid guys. Nine guys that I feel like they are going to put the ball in play and that’s what we preach.
“I don’t feel like in high school baseball you have to have hits all the time. If you put the ball in play and if you put it out there enough, you can sort of rely on a lot of mistakes. If you get the ball in play, and we preach that, go with where it’s pitched, I think we have a lineup where we can do something with that this year.”
While Gilbert said the team does not have any speedburners, he believes the team has the speed it needs at particular times.
“I think it’s (speed) going to be a year where we have to look for situations to go,” Gilbert pointed out. We’re going to do some hit-and-run. I do want to be aggressive, that’s something I preach every day. When we get on the basepaths, let’s put pressure on the defense.”
The Bluefield baseball program has improved its record and quality of play each year Gilbert has been coach, but there is still a perception problem.
“We want to play the game of baseball the correct way and not just be out here for something to do in the spring,” Gilbert said. “I feel like we have established a precedent for how we want to play the game, we want to be aggressive.
“In four of the previous five years since I have been here we have lost in the sectional championship. We’ve been that one game from regionals. I feel like every year we have made progress, but not everybody sees progress as getting better. A lot of people see progress as how far you go.”
Long-time assistant Chris Dinger is no longer with the program. Helping Gilbert with the Beavers this season are Steve Williams, who had a similar role before Gilbert became head coach, and Bob Shiflett.
Weather permitting the Beavers will take on Mount View this afternoon at 4:30 atop Tom’s Mountain in Welch in their season opening game.