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By JOEL COLEMAN
From the professional ranks to youth baseball, plenty of titles have been won through the years based on pitching, speed and defense.
Second-year Starkville Academy head baseball coach Neal Henry hopes those time-tested cornerstones once again prove to be the foundation of a championship run as the Volunteers begin their regular season today at 6 p.m. against Brookhaven on the campus of Copiah-Lincoln Community College.
"Hitting will come," said Henry. "But speed, defense and pitching, that could be our strength this year. Any of our pitchers could be a strength of this team."
Henry has good reason to have faith in his arms. The Vols have a solid unit of pitching staff returnees, anchored by senior Ian Tharp and junior Alex Holtcamp.
"They've been pitching since they were little and pitched all last year in conference play so we're looking for some dominance out of them this year," said Henry.
Tharp and Holtcamp will have plenty of backup when needed.
Henry cited sophomores Hunter Bolin, Drew Pellum and Stephen Robertson as individuals who could all see time on the pitching rubber this year, as well as junior Ryan Mann, who will enter the season as SA's closer.
Junior Ryan McKell, who is currently recovering from labrum surgery on his glove arm, will also be in the mound mix once he returns.
Regardless of who is on the mound, Henry believes the glove work behind the pitcher will be solid.
"We've got a returning shortstop (senior Kyle Henson), all our outfielders played last year, Mann made a switch over to first base and could see some action at third, but our corner spots are basically the same," said Henry. "Holtcamp and Adam Crittenden, they both split duty behind the plate last year and they'll be back."
Perhaps the X-factor to Henry's squad will be the potency of their offensive attack. Aside from veterans like Henson, who'll likely be atop the Vols batting order, and Mann, who'll likely bat in the three-hole, SA will rely heavily upon a pair of sophomores in the form of Bolin and Starkville High transfer Colby Runnels.
"(Bolin) had to play as a freshman last year and was thrown into the mix and responded very well," said Henry. "(Runnels) has come over here and just had an excellent transition."
Whatever turns out to be SA's strongest asset, there is one certainty â€“ everyone comes into the 2011 season with another year's worth of experience under their collective belts.
Leading that charge is Henry, who was officially named the Vols new leader virtually as last season began.
While he says it is beneficial to have spent the last year with his club, Henry admits not much will change in his second year at the helm.
"Nothing really is going to be different," said Henry. "Last year, I was kind of thrown into the mix, but God has a plan for everything and I was in the right spot at the right time.
"I'm doing what I tell my team to do. Just take everything day by day and try to get better. I try to preach to our guys to get better at something everyday. Whether it be fielding a ground ball, hitting, bunting, catching a pop fly or whatever it may be. Just try to get better at something every day."
In limited game time, it seems Henry's team has responded to his plea. After a 14-16 season a year ago, the Vols faced Canton Academy on Saturday in a preseason exhibition. In seven total innings, broken up into a three-inning session and a four-inning session, SA outscored Canton 11-4.
Henry hopes Saturday's performance was an indication of things to come, but knows anything can happen in baseball.
"The ball can hit a rock and bounce one way or bounce the other," said Henry. "I'm hoping things bounce our way this year."