Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Baseball musings ...

Marshall County swept this week's two-game series with Calloway County, but the Lakers showed they are a legitimate contender for the First Region title.

And Calloway pitcher Casey Brockman may be the best 0-4 pitcher we've seen in the area in some time.

"We make errors behind him, for some reason," Calloway coach Zach Hobbs said. "He's 0-4 with an ERA in the ones."

Remember, also, the Lakers are still without the services of junior Grant Williams, one of their top hitters and pitchers. Williams is still out with a hamstring injury and hopes to be back in a couple of weeks, but that timetable could be a bit optimistic.

Brockman is one of the state's top quarterbacks and will walk on at Murray State, and he's also been one of the region's best hitters this spring. He's played several positions already this spring and was 3-for-5 with a pair of walks against the Marshals in the two-game set.

• So what is the area's pecking order right now? Marshall remains the consensus favorite, but putting the next four in order requires some effort.

In alphabetical order, it appears that Calloway County, Graves County, Lone Oak and Murray are in the next wave, and we already know that at least one of those top-five teams won't make it to the regional tournament, since Marshall, Calloway and Murray are in the Fourth District.

As usual, the regional draw will loom large for the tournament. If Graves and Lone Oak win their respective districts and draw into the same bracket, the Fourth District champion could be the top dog in a less competitive bracket.

• Ballard Memorial was considered to be one of the region's top teams, and still would be if ace left-hander Caleb Shelley was healthy this spring. Doctors won't allow Shelley, who underwent Tommy John surgery in December, to even make throw, which means he can't even play first base.

That, in turn, has had a domino effect on the rest of the Bombers. Because Shelley has to be in the DH slot, coach Jeff Sadler has little flexibility with his defensive alignment, and he's had to move some players to unfamiliar positions at times to keep their bats in the lineup.

Shelley's absence also means that the Bombers have had to dip further into their pitching depth, which keeps their infield defense almost resembling a revolving door — ace Colton Pool plays second base, shortstop Jordyn Abell has been pressed into mound duty much more often than anticipated and several players have moved around looking for the right fit.

Nevertheless, the Bombers remain a tough out in the postseason, especially with Pool on the mound. If Ballard ends up with the four seed and top seed Graves County gets the No. 1 seed, an upset isn't out of the question, especially with the tournament being played at Ballard and its unforgiving bandbox park.

• The First Region champion meets the Second Region winner in the semistate series this year, with the games being played at Graves County. And so far this season, the First Region contenders have fared fairly well against the Second Region's better clubs.

Marshall County is 2-2 against them, losing to Christian County, beating Henderson County and splitting with Hopkinsville. Calloway is 2-1, having lost to Henderson and owning wins over Christian and Madisonville. Lone Oak is 2-1 with wins over Hopkinsville and Madisonville and a loss to Christian.

Willis drawing big interest ...

Calloway County football star Tyrrell Willis is having conversations with some of college football's heavyweights this spring, several of which are expected to make him a scholarship offer sometime in the next few months.

Some like Willis, a 6-foot-3, 255-pound junior, as a power running back, and others project him as a linebacker, defensive end or even as a defensive lineman.

Memphis has offered, and Central Michigan is expected to do so as well. He's also on the board at programs such as Alabama, Tennessee, Louisville and Purdue.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Wright, E. Roof on tears ...

I'll be visiting Lexington this weekend, checking out Murray's entry into the All A Classic state baseball tournament and getting a chance to watch Heath products Chad Wright and Clint Tilford in action for the University of Kentucky as it hosts Tennessee in a three-game series.

No Kentucky hitter is as hot as Wright, a true freshman who was patrolling center field for the Pirates at this time last year. Wright has exploded since being moved to the leadoff spot two weeks ago, hitting .436 with a on-base percentage of .500 and scoring 15 runs in nine games. He's now hitting .356 on the season and has played errorless ball at the three outfield positions.

Tilford has been struggling in the bullpen as of late. He took the loss on Friday night against Alabama, giving up seven runs in one inning, and he was beaten on a ninth-inning homer against Georgia earlier this month. Tilford is now 1-4 with a 6.64 ERA.

Michigan State catcher Eric Roof was 8-for-13 with two homers and 10 RBI, including a grand slam, as the Spartans swept Iowa over the weekend. Roof, who figures to be selected in Major League Baseball's amateur draft in June, is now hitting a team-best .325 with three homers and 30 RBI on the season, also leading the squad in RBI and extra-base hits.

Brother Jonathan Roof is hitting .262 as the Spartans' everyday shortstop and is 6-for-7 in stolen base attempts.

At Middle Tennessee, Reidland product Chad Edwards is 7-1 with a 5.64 ERA. Edwards won two games last week, starts against Mississippi State and Sun Belt Conference foe South Alabama, and was named the Sun Belt's pitcher of the week after shutting out Vanderbilt on April 14.

Former St. Mary ace Gabriel Shaw is faring well in Louisville's bullpen. Shaw is 3-0 with a 3.29 ERA with solid all-around numbers (38 2/3 innings, 31 hits, 11 walks and 34 strikeouts). He picked up a win after allowing one run in three innings of relief against Big East Conference rival Notre Dame on Friday. That came on one day's rest after throwing three shutout innings against Indiana in a non-conference game.

Webb's draft status ... falling again?

Daniel Webb has had his moments at Northwest Florida State Community College, where he landed after turning down a late-summer offer from the Arizona Diamondbacks, but it's unclear where he figures to go in Major League Baseball's amateur draft in June.

Webb is 3-3 with a 5.06 ERA for Northwest Florida State (formerly known as Okaloosa-Walton) this spring and has allowed more hits (64) than innings pitched (58 2/3) and has had spotty control, with 33 walks and 46 strikeouts.

He's also playing first base occasionally and is struggling with the bat, hitting just .214 in 42 at-bats with two home runs and six RBI.

On the mound, reports are that Webb still has mid-90s velocity on his fastball, but remains inconsistent with his command. Baseball America magazine recently noted one scout's assessment that "he tends to rush through his delivery when he doesn't feel he has his best stuff."

There's a growing sentiment that Webb might not ever recoup the money he turned down last summer. Tampa Bay offered him $500,000 to sign as a seventh-round pick during the draft, but Webb's family opted to turn down the offer. Arizona eventually selected him in the 12th round and made him an offer reportedly in the $200,000-300,000 range, but was turned down at the end of the summer.

Dunn dominating at Trevecca

Former Carlisle County two-sport star Tim Dunn has emerged as one of the NAIA's top pitchers, going 11-0 with a 1.94 ERA at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville. Dunn has put together some eye-popping numbers this spring — he's allowed just 56 hits in 83 1/3 innings with 30 walks and strikeouts, and he's holding hitters to a .194 batting average.

Dunn has attracted some pro scouts' attention the last two seasons, starting with his late-summer work for Paducah's American Legion team in 2007. Don't be surprised if he is picked in Major League Baseball's amateur draft in June and elects to turn pro.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

In and out (of the lineup) ...

Calloway County's Grant Williams, projected as one of the Lakers' top pitchers and hitters, has been out for two weeks with a serious hamstring pull in his right leg, an injury he sustained while hitting "a three-RBI single. I went down in the baseline and had to crawl to first base," he said after the Lakers' game Friday in their round-robin tournament.

Williams is still using a crutch to get around, and while he hopes to return to the lineup in a couple of weeks, he may not be able to keep that schedule. The injury also has bigger implications for Williams, a three-sport athlete who will be one of the area's top football prospects next season.

A 6-foot-5, 270-pound two-way lineman, Williams is a two-time member of The Paducah Sun's all-area team and is attracting extensive Division I interest as an offensive tackle.

— Lone Oak's revolving door at third base may have settled on freshman Mitch Jacobs, who was rock-solid on defense in Friday's 2-1 win over Franklin-Simpson. In the sixth inning, Jacobs made a nifty backhand grab with one out and a runner on second base, looked the runner back to the bag and got the hitter at first base.

"We were ready to put him in the lineup a couple of weeks ago," said Lone Oak coach Geno Miller, "but he started having back problems."

Miller has used five different third baseman this season, but he liked Jacobs' poise and confidence on a couple of other nice plays at the hot corner.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Surprise! Wilson an All-Star ...

A lot of high school basketball fans around the state today are asking themselves: Who is Aaron Wilson?

The answer, for the moment, is that he is the biggest surprise choice for the Kentucky-Indiana All-Star Series.

Wilson, Fulton City's do-everything guard, was named to the squad on Wednesday after impressing the coaching staff (Apollo's Tony Hopper and Covington Catholic's Mike Listerman) and the selection committee at last week's tryouts at Campbellsville University.

The team is led by Madisonville's Jon Hood, the state's Mr. Basketball award winner. Also on the roster are several players that led their teams to the state tournament — Adair County's Darren Ballou, twins Ethan and Evan Faulkner of Elliott County, Mason County's Russ Middleton, Anderson County's C.J. Penny, Lexington Catholic's Vee Sanford, Christian County's Corey Wilford and Louisville Central's Ridge Wilson.

Rounding out the squad are Wilson, Corey Jackson of Louisville Shawnee and Apollo's DeLon Butler.

Wilson, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound guard, put up whopping numbers for the Bulldogs last season, averaging around 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists per game.

The Kentucky-Indiana series will be played on June 13 at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis and June 14 at Bellarmine University's Knights Hall in Louisville.

More details to come in Thursday's Paducah Sun ...

Monday, April 20, 2009

Kuykendall out indefinitely ...

Murray's baseball team has a favorable draw for the All A Classic state tournament, but there is a chance the Tigers won't be at full strength in Lexington.

Outfielder David Kuykendall, who has become a reliable leadoff hitter, is out indefinitely with what could be a broken bone in his left wrist. Kuykendall sustained the injury in Saturday's sectional win over Russellville when he was sliding into second base and grabbed the bag because he was afraid he might have overslid.

"He's got a splint, not a full cast on it," Murray coach Mike Johnson said, "but we many not know until next week exactly what the wrist looks like. There is a lot of swelling there."

Kuykendall could be out anywhere from a week until the end of the season, and even a week off could be damaging to Murray's hopes in Lexington. He almost certainly won't see time this weekend, when Murray plays in the Louisville Invitational Tournament, and the hope is he could get a few at-bats against line pitching the next week before Murray heads to Lexington.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Remembering "The Bird" ...

Mark Fidrych, who was once the toast of baseball, died last week in an accident on his farm. He was 54 years old. Very few baseball fans below the age of 40 will remember much about him, and it's a shame that he came along at least a generation too soon, both in terms of his health and his potential stardom.

Fidrych, for the uninitiated, was a nut. He talked to the baseball on the mound. His gawky frame and bushy hair earned him the nickname "The Bird," after "Big Bird" of "Sesame Street" fame.

And for one wonderful season, Fidrych was the biggest thing in baseball. In 1976, he was bigger than both the suddenly-resurgent New York Yankees (and the budding love-hate relationship between George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin) and the Big Red Machine. Bigger than the new thing called "free agency" and the debate over the four-year old designated hitter rule.

Fidrych was the real thing. He went 19-9 for a Detroit Tigers team that went 74-87 and led the league with a 2.34 ERA. And all this at age 21, less than two years after he was picked in Major League Baseball's amateur draft.

The next season, his career took a far different turn. He was pitching well again before his arm started hurting, and he never got it back. By 1981, he was out of baseball, his wonderful right arm shot and in way too much pain to pitch for anyone.

Knowing what we know now, Fidrych was destined to crash and burn. He pitched 250 innings at 21 years old — and all of them after May 1. He threw 24 complete games and worked 10 or more innings a whopping five times. He worked 11 innings (11 innings!) four times, once in back-to-back starts.

In retrospect, it's amazing that Fidrych's arm stayed attached to his body.

Pitch counts didn't exist then — the first time I ever heard of them was when Tommy Lasorda was working Fernando Valenzuela like a dog in the early 1980s — and no one realized what Detroit manager Ralph Houk (a well-respected baseball man) was doing to Fidrych's arm.

As a result, baseball fans were robbed of one of the game's biggest and brightest — and most deliciously interesting — stars.

Rest in peace, Mark ...

Pitino Lite he ain't ...

Driving to Thursday's Graves County-Mayfield baseball game, I stumbled onto an out-of-season "Big Blue Line" radio show with Kentucky coach John Calipari.

The same thought occurred to me as I was listening to the call-in show that did when I had turned away from the television during Calipari's initial UK press conference ... close your eyes, and you would swear Calipari was Rick Pitino about 15-20 years later. They have the same accent (Yankee) and know exactly how and what to say to whip the fan base into a frenzy.

Some have referred to Calipari as Pitino Lite, noting that both took New England schools to the Final Four (Calipari ruled the Atlantic-10 at Massachusetts while Pitino at Providence in the tougher Big East) before skipping off to the NBA (Pitino with the Knicks, Calipari across the Hudson at New Jersey) before returning to take the college game by storm.

The analogy works, but it ends when you compare the two. Calipari is Pitino's equal, both in terms of coaching and marketing himself and his program. Calipari has UK fans eating out of the palm of his hand by telling them exactly what they want to hear, judging from these (sometimes paraphrased) comments:

"We're playing for the number one seed in the NCAA tournament."

"If we get the guys we want, we'll play anybody."

"Duke doesn't want to play us."

The guy is good. Real good. And he has the track record to back it up.

UK basketball is going to be really interesting to watch for the next few years.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Ballard's ever-growing tournament ...

Kevin Estes, Ballard Memorial's girls' basketball coach, reports that his school's pre-Christmas tournament will expand from eight teams to 16 for next season, and with a very competitive field.

Several other area schools — Marshall County, Paducah Tilghman, Heath, Hickman County, Lyon County and Fulton City — will join the fray, as could a powerhouse program from Tennessee.

Knoxville Webb, which has won state titles in two of the last three seasons in Tennessee's private-school division, has verbally committed to play in the tournament but hasn't signed a contract yet. Also in the mix are Tennessee schools Lake County (a Class A quarterfinalist last year), Union City and Beech from suburban Nashville.

Also entered are Kentucky squads Allen County, Todd Central, Logan County, Hart County and Bourbon County. The tournament is scheduled from Dec. 21-23. It will be a standard bracket-style tournament with games played in both the high school and middle school gyms.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Area baseball products ...

Mother Nature interfered with today's trip to Bowling Green for the Kentucky-Western Kentucky baseball game, which would have given us a chance to catch up with the three Heath products on the UK roster — true freshman Chad Wright is starting in the outfield for the Bat 'Cats, and Clint Tilford is one of the key members of the bullpen.

Let's take a look at how some area products are faring on the Division I level:

Chad Wright is hitting .310 for UK while splitting time between the outfield corners. Brother Brock Wright had played sparingly, going hitless in two at-bats this spring. Clint Tilford is 1-2 with a 3.76 ERA, primarily being used in relief.

Gabriel Shaw is one of the bullpen stalwarts at Louisville, going 2-0 with a 3.70 ERA in 12 appearances.

His former St. Mary teammates, brothers Jonathan and Eric Roof, are regulars at Michigan State. Jonathan Roof, the Spartans' shortstop, is hitting .273 in 28 games. Eric Roof, the starting catcher, is hitting .311 with one homer and 18 RBI.

Former Reidland pitcher Chad Edwards is 4-0 with a 5.23 ERA at Middle Tennessee.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Oak Hill vs. Findlay, finally ...

ESPN helped put together the National High School Invitational, which is being billed as a sort of an eight-team "national championship tournament" for high school squads.

Sunday's championship game, which will be televised live on ESPN, will feature Oak Hill Academy and Findlay Prep, the consensus Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country.

Both teams played at Marshall County's Hoop Fest in December and were clearly the top two outfits in Draffenville — Oak Hill beat Duncanville (Texas) and Chicago Simeon and Findlay was very impressive in disposing of Florida-based Monteverde Academy.

Oak Hill is 39-0 and Findlay is 31-0, and both teams are actually a little more talented now than when they played at Hoop Fest. Oak Hill center Keith Gallon missed most of the event with a knee injury and Findlay has since picked up a talented transfer in Texas-bound junior Tristian Thompson, who played at St. Benedict's (N.J.) at Hoop Fest before having a falling out with coach Danny Hurley and transferring to Findlay, which is based in Las Vegas.

St. Benedict reached the semifinals, losing to Oak Hill. Findlay hammered Montrose Christian of Maryland to reach the title game.

Oak Hill has its usual assortment of Division I signees, including Oklahoma-bound Gallon and guard Lamont "Mo-Mo" Jones, a Virginia Tech signee, and several highly-rated juniors.

Findlay has a star-studded backcourt in Avery Bradley (Texas), D.J. Richardson (Illinois) and junior Cory Joseph, who is one of Louisville's top recruiting targets for next season. They complement Thompson and UNLV-bound big man Carlos Lopez.

The tournament is being played at Georgetown Prep in suburban Washington, D.C. Marshall County was contacted as a potential host two years ago, but ESPN opted to take the event somewhere else.

Corey Robinson ... pushing at Troy?

Corey Robinson, Lone Oak's former record-setting quarterback and Kentucky's Mr. Football in 2007, is showing that he might be able to make an immediate contribution at Troy. Robinson, a freshman, was 8-for-10 for 102 yards and a touchdown in Troy's spring game last weekend.

Robinson will be considered a true freshman this fall after "grayshirting" in 2008, a move that didn't cost him any eligibility. Robinson paid his own way at Troy during the first semester and is now on scholarship, a process used by some Division I schools to stash an extra recruit or two — Kentucky often did it a few years ago as Rich Brooks' program had been penalized some scholarships by the NCAA.

Word is that the Trojans would like to redshirt Robinson, giving him four more seasons, but his performance in the spring game — his numbers were much better than those of projected starter Levi Brown — shows he might push for time this fall.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Gillispie's commitments ...

"Wormer ... dead."

"Marmalard ... dead."

"Niedermeyer ... "

OK, forgive the "Animal House" reference, but that is what came to mind when I started thinking at how Kentucky will deal with all those future Billy Gillispie-ites. One by one, Gillispie's commitments figure to be relieved of their obligations as John Calipari settles in as Kentucky's new basketball coach.

Already, they're dropping like flies, and not unlike Dean Wormer and the Omega House snobs.

Texas guard G.J. Vilarino has "re-opened his recruitment," in the current parlance. So have junior college guard Konner Tucker and guard K.C. Ross-Miller. Now comes word that Dakotah Euton and Michael Avery, the California kid that committed to UK as an eighth-grader, have followed suit after seeing the handwriting on the wall.

No word on whether or not Vinny Zollo, who plays at Clark County (within a 30-minute drive of UK's campus) is scratched off the list, too. The same goes for Dominique Ferguson, a guard from Indianapolis.

I'll confess that I haven't seen Zollo play, although at the Sweet 16 someone that knows UK's program well thinks he could still have a future with the 'Cats. Even Calipari's dribble-drive offense can use a good back-to-the-basket player on occasion, and Zollo — a 6-9 sophomore that averaged 12 points and seven rebounds per game after moving in from Ohio to be closer to Lexington — has enough potential for Calipari to approach his recruitment with an open mind.

Euton, the former Rose Hill Christian star whose departure started a mass exodus to Scott County last spring (two of his Rose Hill teammates ended up there as well), had a questionable future at best with UK. He hasn't shown that kind of potential in two visits to Marshall County's Hoop Fest, and not many other knowledgable fans see it in their travels across the state, either.

A 6-8 junior, Euton is cast as a wing player. For him to succeed, he has to be a Dan Langhi-type product at the college level, but at the moment, he's a couple of inches shorter and lacking Langhi's mobility and ability to handle the basketball. He is a fair outside shooter, but his lack of athleticism figures to be a big problem for him on the defensive end.

Calipari and recruiting ... culling the herd?

It's one of the more distasteful sides of college basketball — a new coach comes on board and starts jettisoning some of the previous regime's players to bring in his own recruits.

In most cases, it takes a year for the process to play itself out. At Kentucky, it may be John Calipari's first order of business.

Kentucky has 11 returning scholarship players, it appears, with three recruits signed in Madisonville's Jon Hood (named Kentucky's Mr. Basketball on Tuesday), Daniel Orton and G.J. Vilarino.

Suffice it to say that Billy Gillispie's staff had plans to whittle the number down to 13, whether it's to make transfer Matt Pilgrim a walk-on or the possibility of Michael Porter (now married with a child on the way) moving on to the rest of his life.

Ah, but what about the recruits that Calipari has on the hook? Four of them have already signed with Memphis, but each of them has an opt-out clause in the case Calipari left to take another job. Presumably, those guys are back on the market.

And there is the case of DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall, two elite-level seniors that are unsigned. Cousins had committed to Memphis and Wall was reportedly leaning that way.

What if any number of those six players wish to join Calipari at Kentucky? And if so, which players are culled from the herd to make room for them?

There are indications this may have been one of the points of negotiations between Calipari and Kentucky officials. It never looks good when a school nudges a player out the door (remember Rick Pitino and Rodrick Rhodes?), but the powers that be at Kentucky seem ready to take a little heat to help Calipari re-stock the roster.

Realistically, only Patrick Patterson, Jodie Meeks and Darius Miller appear certain to be spared the paring knife. Chances are Kentucky will concede to public relations and give next year's seniors (Porter, Kevin Galloway, Ramon Harris and Perry Stevenson) the opportunity to finish out their careers, but all bets are off on the likes of Josh Harrellson and Pilgrim and attitude questions like DeAndre Liggins and A.J. Stewart.

Suffice it to say, some Kentucky fans couldn't care less about the lesser players — the need to get back to the Final Four supersedes any other concerns. That's a shame. After all, these players did commit themselves to Kentucky, a program which wooed and recruited them.

Calipari could bite the bullet and publicly advise the Memphis players to stay with their commitment, but is that really fair to him or the players?

As for Gillispie's other commitments, we'll address those shortly.

Stay tuned ...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Hoops leftovers ... part 1

Basketball-induced exhaustion overcame me for a few days, so over the next couple of days, I'll clean up some state tournament (Kentucky and Illinois) nuggets out of the notebook.

First of all, the awards:

Two of southern Illinois' top players were named to the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association's Class A-2A all-state squad. Byron Bailey, who led Massac County to a state runner-up finish in Class 2A, was a first-team selection, as was Meridian guard Isiah "Hoopy" Jones.

Massac guards Jarelle Johnson and Cory Ayala were honorable mention choices.

In Kentucky, Marshall County's Jessica Holder and Aaron Wilson of Fulton City were named the First Region players of the year by the Kentucky Basketball Coaches Association. The players automatically receive invitations to try out for the Kentucky-Indiana all-star series.

Carlisle County's Brian O'Neill won the boys' coaching award, as did Marshall County's Howard Beth for the girls. Caldwell County's Stephanie Crick won the girls' coaching award in the Second Region.

Several coaches with area ties were selected to join the KABC's "Court of Honor" — Barney Thweatt of Paducah Tilghman and Jim Wallace of Trigg County were the boys' picks from the First and Second regions. The 12th Region selection was Kirk Chiles, who also did wonderful work at Lyon County and Marshall County.

Mayfield's Lanny Lancaster was honored from the First Region at the girls' state tournament.