By Austin Bishop \ Special to The Star
The Meridian Star
COLLINSVILLE — When Jerry Boatner tells you a pitching staff has a chance to be special, it would be wise to pay attention.
The veteran West Lauderdale High School baseball coach who is just seven wins shy of becoming the all-time winningest coach in Mississippi high school history says the Knights’ 2014 pitching staff could be the best in school history, evoking memories of the power staff of 1990 that included the likes of Jay Powell and Dennis Hobson.
“Pitching is what we have, and three of them are starters that give us the best staff I may have ever had here,” Boatner said.
While Powell, who went on to star at Mississippi State and pitch 11 seasons in the Major Leagues, and Hobson formed a powerful one-two punch, Boatner says the depth on this year’s team tops even that squad.
“We have guys who can clock in the 90s and hit their spots,” he said. “We have five guys we can run out there that I believe match up with anybody.”At the front of the rotation will be 6-foot, 175-pounder Will Stokes, who has already signed with Ole Miss, and like teammate Blake Anderson was chosen as a member of the Clarion-Ledger’s Dandy Dozen team.
Stokes is a power guy who can hit in the 90s consistently with his fastball. He posted a 1.24 ERA last season for the Knights, averaging 12 strikeouts and just 1.8 walks per seven innings. He can also play shortstop when he’s not on the mound.
Also in the starting rotation are seniors Ryan Lane and Mason Wooldridge. Lane is bouncing back from Tommy John Surgery, and Boatner says he is looking good in the preseason, clocking in the high 80s on his fastball.
“He has one of the best change-ups you will see in high school,” Boatner said.
While Wooldridge completes the high-profile rotation, the bullpen features the likes of Anderson, who recently clocked 96 MPH on the radar gun, and Colton McKeithen. Even though Anderson is the closer for the Knights, what he brings to the table for WL behind the plate is even more valuable. Boatner said the University of Southern Mississippi signee rates as one of the best high school catchers in the nation.
“I’ve had a couple cross-checkers in here and one of them said he has the best arm for a high school kid he has ever seen,” Boatner said. “He is just an outstanding catcher overall and has all the tools. You never know how high somebody will be drafted, but he has a chance to go pretty high.”
While Anderson hit .420 with five homers last season, Boatner said the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder is working even harder on improving at the plate. One of the things that make this year’s West Lauderdale team dangerous is the experience. Most of the time this season, the Knights will be starting seven seniors.
Boatner is not only counting on that experience to give the Knights a shot at winning their 13th MHSAA state baseball championship, but also help him become the all-time winningest coach in Mississippi.
Boatner, who will be beginning his 46th season as a head baseball coach and 41st at West Lauderdale when his Knights take the field against Northeast Lauderdale on Feb. 28, has 1,062 victories to his credit, just six shy of the mark set by Rex Berryman of Mooreville.
“There have been a lot of players who have had something to do with that,’ Boatner said.
He also noted that had he scheduled the allotted number of games over his career that number would have likely already been eclipsed.
“I looked back at when we won those four straight championships (1992-1995) and saw that we probably missed out on playing four or five more games each of those years,” he said.
While pitching will undeniably be the focal point of this year’s team, the Knights have experience and talent at each position on the diamond. Ryan Lane will play first when he’s not pitching, while Daniel Hill is at second and Stokes, who will be spelled by McKain Ortlepp, is at shortstop.
Wooldridge will play third and first, according to who is pitching, while McKeithen will play some third and also left field. Fred Franklin is in center, while Jackson Little plays right.Lane and Hill have already signed with Meridian Community College, while McKeithen signed with East Mississippi Community College.