The trees are budding and Cracker Jack sales are up. That means baseball is right around the foul pole, folks — and Melissa’s Cardinals and Anna’s Coyotes are primed for another thrilling season. There are no new head coaches to introduce, no new systems to learn — just more good baseball from two teams coming off successful campaigns. We’ll hear the latest from head coaches Jason Russell of Melissa and Joey Hector of Anna, and also briefly preview the new District 11-4A.


Now keep an eye on this, baseball aficionados: New mandatory pitch-count rules are in place for high school hurlers this year. They include:


— 86-110 pitches, four days’ rest


— 66-85 pitches, three days’ rest


— 46-65 pitches, two days’ rest


— 31-45 pitches, one day’s rest


— 0-30 pitches, no rest required


Besides protecting young arms, watch for these rules to affect strategy. Stretching pitch-counts may become more of an every at-bat weapon.


Now – to the teams.


Anna Coyotes


Head coach: Joey Hector, fifth year


2016 record: 20-7/6-4, third in district; second-round playoff loss to Sanger


Key players lost: Gage Scribner, Brennan White, Matt LaGrone, Brayden Houston, Dustin Duer


Key returning players: Koy Harris, Daniel Scott, Zach Howard, Dillon Burr, Colton Brown, Lawrence Goade


Season-opener: Monday, Feb. 20, vs. Callisburg


District-opener: Tuesday, March 21, at Aubrey


Head coach Joey Hector says his Coyotes are rebuilding this year — and he backs it up with numbers: seven starters lost from last year’s 20-7 playoff squad. Among the graduated are catcher Gage Scribner, first baseman Brennan White, second baseman Matt LaGrone and shortstop Brayden Houston – All-District selections all. Scribner, LaGrone and Brayden Houston were four-year starters.


But don’t get the wrong idea. The Coyotes plan to show up — and compete hard.


“We’ll play aggressive and we’ll play the game the right way,” Hector said. “It might not necessarily reflect on the scoreboard, as it’s a rebuilding year, losing those kids. But they’ll be a fun group to watch. They won’t embarrass us. They’ll get out there and compete. And, hopefully, we can get to the seventh inning and find a way to scratch another run across and win a game. But it will be different than last year.”


As for key returning players, Hector points to Koy Harris, an All-District pitcher in 2016, and All-District infielder Daniel Scott, who also pitched. “Then from there, it’s kind of open-door,” Hector says. “We’re looking for players. Our No. 2 catcher (Trey Good) is back from last year but he’s been injured a lot this early spring, so he hasn’t gotten back there very much. Everybody else is pretty much new ones. So it’s going to be a little bit different Coyote look for a while.”


Hector adds that Good and Jacob Williams are competing for starting catcher.


“(Harris) was our 1A pitcher, I guess,” Hector said.


What makes him tough to hit?


“He can throw 2-0 change-ups, 3-0 change-ups,” Hector said. “He doesn’t rely on his fastball. He’s an upper-70s guy with a fastball, but he throws so many change-ups that when he throws his fastball it’s like it’s 96. He changes speeds well, competes well and doesn’t walk people. He’s in the zone. He’s had a good defense in the past behind him. It kind of remains to be seen how we’re going to field behind him this year.”


Harris will also play first and third base.


“I think our pitching will be our strength,” Hector said. “We’ve also got a kid named Zach Howard, big kid — a 6-2, 220-pound kid — that can chunk it a little bit. And Dillon Burr was a kid that was a freshman last year on varsity for a while but then had some arm issues. He’s back and healthy. … (Pitching) should take some pressure off our defense and, hopefully, hold the other team down to where we can score some runs.”


As for hitting, Hector will look to veterans Scott, Howard, Harris, Colton Brown and Jeron Lewis.


“Those guys, they’re swinging the bat pretty well. But those are guys that have been with me for three years, whether it be JV or varsity,” Hector said. “They’ve been through the system little bit and they get it. The other four hitters in the lineup, we’re trying to kind of piece them together and find their role.”


Hector notes that adding Celina and Aubrey to the district, in place of Community and Quinlan Ford, has changed the playoffs-race landscape.


“It’s a whole lot tougher district this year,” he said. “The reality of it is, there are six good teams. … Now there are going to be two teams that are pretty decent that are not going to make the playoffs.”


Hector recalled two spirited contests with Melissa last season.


“They beat us in extra innings once, then beat us in the last inning (here) in the other,” he said. “Both times, good games.”


The Coyotes have a new all-turf facility to play on this season and Hector sounds plenty excited to call it home.


“It’s as good as any field in the state of Texas,” he says. “It’s a big field, it plays big. It’s 315 (feet) down the lines, 352 in the gaps and 380 in center. So you’re going to see a lot of triples this year that you haven’t seen in the past, just because of the size.”


The field is part of the new Anna Sports Complex located just south of Anna High School, which also includes a new softball field and tennis courts.


“The people here have been very supportive in my five years,” Hector said. “I think the culture’s changing. They’re expecting more now, which is good. I think the kids expect more, the coaches expect more, the community expects more. We’re working to give them that and, hopefully, it will keep on going the direction it’s been going. It’s gone up every year.”


Melissa Cardinals


Head coach: Jason Russell, third year


2016 record: 16-12/9-1; district co-champions; second-round playoff loss to Argyle


Key players lost: Paul Marrufo, John Gresset


Key returning players: Tate Whittington, Dalton Vestal, Krisjon Segleski, Danny Britt


Season-opener: Tuesday, Feb. 21, at Pilot Point


District-opener: Tuesday, March 21, vs. Bonham


Coming off a district co-championship, the Cards have talent coming back this year — though head coach Jason Russell must try to replace a First-Team All-State catcher and an All-District third baseman/pitcher, both lost to graduation. The former, Paul Marrufo, “will be extremely tough to replace,” Russell said.


“We’re going to miss him tremendously,” he continued. “… He was, I think, third in the state in home runs but, defensively, he pretty much shut the run game down — just the little things, blocking pitches, controlling the game. There weren’t many passed-balls to get by him.”


John Gresset is the departed third baseman/pitcher — and clean-up hitter.


“He was just a leader,” Russell said. “Everything that was hit over there (at third), he was going to catch it and throw them out at first. He was just reliable. And on the mound he was a bulldog. He got outs.”


But as noted earlier, Melissa’s cupboard is far from bare in 2017. The Cards return Tate Whittington, the team’s Offensive MVP last year and a First-Team All-State outfielder.


“He was the quarterback of the football team so I look for him to take over this team and lead this team,” Russell said.


Dalton Vestal, a First-Team All-District shortstop, is back too.


“He’s a hard-nosed player,” Russell said. “He plays great defense and we look for him to handle the bat really well for us.”


First-Team All-District outfielder Krisjon Segleski returns as well and will likely play catcher this time around.


“He’s got big shoes to fill,” Russell said, “but I think he can do it. He’s got strong arms and swings the bat well.”


Danny Britt was the district Pitcher of the Year last season and is back on the mound for the Cards. Russell says the quiet Britt leads “by example.” Brady Morrison, a Second-Team All-District outfielder last year, will also toe the rubber for Melissa.


“He’s another guy that just throws strikes, changes speeds and plays great defense,” Russell said.


So what led to the Cards’ 2016 success?


“We’d catch the ball, we didn’t make a lot of errors,” Russell said. “We snuck up on some people, I think. Not a lot of people predicted us to do much. … We return a lot of the same guys (this year), so I think we’re going to play pretty good defense. Pitching, we don’t have that guy that goes in and shuts you down. We’ve got a lot of guys that throw strikes, they change speeds and they get ground balls. I don’t know if we have a huge ‘strength.’ We do things well as a whole — defense, pitching, throw strikes, we run bases hard and then hitting, we’re pretty solid, 1 through 9.”


“The thing we’ve been talking about now is just being selfless,” Russell said. “‘Do it for the guy next to you.’ It’s a weird game. It’s a team sport, but it’s built off individual accomplishments. So we look for guys that’ll sacrifice themselves. It’s a game of sacrifice.”


Russell agrees that the new district will be more stout than last season’s lineup.


“We lost the fifth and sixth place teams out of last year’s district,” he said, “and we gain a Celina team that went four rounds deep (in the playoffs) last year and an Aubrey team that was really young and played in a really tough district.”


Princeton and Bonham were young last year too, he noted, and should be improved. But what about Anna?


“Coach Hector does a great job with those boys,” Russell said. “They’re going to be really good. They always are. … They play us extremely hard. We were in some dogfights last year.”


This will be the Cards’ final season at Melissa High’s Sydney Field. The team moves east next year to a new sports complex now under construction.


“It’ a really nice facility,” Russell said. “All-turf. It’s going to be second to none. I’m really excited about that.”


So what should the Cardinal faithful expect this season?


“Just solid baseball,” Russell said. “We’re going to play hard. We’re going to go out there and try to play it the right way, so it should be exciting.”


After a trip to the regional quarterfinals two years ago and a district title last year, “exciting” seems to be Melissa’s forte of late.


“We’ve had some success,” Russell saidof his Cardinal tenure to date. “I’ve been really lucky and blessed with some special teams.”