Strong-armed Panthers to contend for district title
By Brian Bloom
The gym echoes the sounds of balls against gloves. Baseball is back in Bartlett and Coach Phil Clark’s 2013 squad promises to be deep, athletic and talented.
“With the depth of our pitching staff, we got a chance to be pretty good,” the Hall-of Fame coach said. “We might not have that one name player like we had last year (Southern Mississippi signee Nick Dawson) but we got a lot of good, solid high school baseball players that are athletic.”
Thirty-nine hopefuls fill the gym recently, with only six being seniors.
“We’re not that old but these kids have played a lot of ball together,” Clark said. “We’re going to play a competitive schedule but these boys have a competitive background.”
That schedule jumps right into the fire with Bartlett hosting a couple rounds of the history Louis Harris Memorial Tournament beginning March 11. Teams from throughout Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas will be represented giving the Panthers an early barometer of where they stand.
Coming off a 26-12 season a year ago with a district championship in their trophy case, Clark believes his boys want more.
“We beat Arlington to win the district but we lost in the first round of the region semis,” Clark said. “We only lost three seniors last year and we have some movable pieces.”
Clark’s squad will look like a chess game as he moves players from position to position depending on who takes the mound and Bartlett has a number of veteran arms they can rely on.
All District senior Shane Lantique leads the team with a 5-3 mark from a season ago.
Juniors Bryan Cruse (5-0) and Bo Caniness (6-1) will also take starting rolls.
Their battery mate will switch between senior Keegan Floyd, a .300 hitter a year ago and junior Joseph Leatherwood, the team’s best defensive presence.
Three players may also rotate at first. Junior Jacob Elliott returns as a starter while Cruse will man the bag when not on the mound. Floyd may also see some duty at first as well as being a designated hitter.
Last year’s starting All District second baseman may move for the third time in his career. Junior Bobby Holder may man right field for the Panthers with a pair of sophomores, Drew Hollis and Parker Wilson, working the middle infield. Holder previously played some center field for Coach Clark while Wilson and/or first baseman Elliott may also see some time at third.
Senior Connor Anderson, who flirted with .300 at the plate, is slated for short for the Panthers. Anderson started at third a year ago.
All District senior center fielder Chase Claudio will work the middle and be book-ended by two other returning starters. Junior Wesley Johnson will roam left with Holder expected in right.
With both Johnson and Holder also expected to help on the mound, Clark said second baseman Hollis may also see some outfield duty.
“Hollis can play out there,” Clark said. “He can really run.”
Perennial nemesis Arlington remains a district favorite along with Bartlett. “We’ve been butting heads for a while now,” Clark said.
Lacking overwhelming size, Clark said his team won’t necessarily play small ball.
“We’re gonna try to hit doubles and run,” Clark said. “Our goal is to be playing our best ball in May. With our pitching staff and our athleticism I think we may be a pretty tough team to beat.”