Spring has sprung for the Patriots baseball team
By Chuck Livingston Sports Editor
Following an up-and-down 2015 season that saw the team win seven of its final 10 outings, including a first-round state tournament against Texarkana, Marion is starting nearly completely over in 2016. The Pats project to have at least eight new starters on defense this season following the graduation of a large senior class last May. Despite the losses, fourth-year Marion head coach Daniel Kelley has high hopes for his team. “I expect us to still be pretty competitive,” Kelley says. “We have a lot of hard-working guys that love to play the game. We want to get them to a mindset where they don’t want to lose.” Marion may well be short on familiar faces, but the names that are still available to Kelley do have some experience. Sophomore Peyton McElroy projects to be Marion’s catcher after spending most of his freshman season at that position and being a defensive replacement for the team. At first base will be senior Ben Vaughn. Vaughn played some corner infield for the team last season, and will also be counted on for innings on the hill. Cody Smith will start at second base, with Tony Rudd next to him at shortstop. Each player had a productive summer with the school’s extended summer team. At third base will be senior Jackson Wiggins, who started last season at that position in the early part of last season. Wiggins will also fill in around the infield while also being counted on for some innings on the mound. The outfield will feature sophomore Peyton Walker in left field, Tyler Steele in center while Joel Sargent and Collin Carpenter will split time in right field and out of the bullpen. Heath Stephenson will also be in the mix for some at-bats once he recovers from an offseason injury. The strength of Marion’s team may the pitching staff this season, and it projects to be a deep bullpen. “Our main goal as a staff is to throw strikes 60 percent of the time,” Kelley explains. “We noticed that high school hitters facing a first-pitch strike hit just .179. I’m not sure how many people realize that, but that’s not very good, and I’ll take my chances with a first-pitch strike.” Marion’s top two pitchers are seniors, Peyton Moore and Vaughn. At the moment, those two project to be the conference starters for the Pats, though Kelley says that could also be a fluid situation. “Ben and Peyton both had opportunities with conference starts last year,” says Kelley. “They both had really good days and not-so-good days. They’ve been tested. Both threw against Benton and if they progress like I feel like they should, and can, we’ll be competitive there.” Kelley also expects Stephenson, Sargent, Carpenter, Walker, Rudd and left-handed sophomore Ripp Inman to throw some innings for his team this spring. Marion dropped its season opener on Monday at home against Paragould by a score of 9-7. The Patriots open conference play on March 31 at home against Cabot at 4:30 p.m.