Head coach: Jason Russell, 4th year

2017 record: 17-15-1 / 9-1 District 11-4A; district/bi-district champs

District mates: Anna, Bonham, Princeton, Aubrey, Celina

Key players lost to graduation: Dalton Vestal, Cody Jackson

Key returning players: Tate Whittington, Andrew Cole, Brady Morrison, Krisjan Segleski, Adam Davis, Grayson Hurst

Key newcomers: Tyler Womack, Jayton Cepica, Trevor Brooks, Bobby Houston, Dillon Youngblood

Season-opener: Monday, Feb. 19, at Pilot Point

District-opener: Tuesday, March 20, at Bonham

MELISSA — The Cards are coming off a memorable 2017 campaign, one that included a nine-win district championship, a bi-district title and an epic three-game series with a loaded team from Decatur that advanced to the regional finals.

“We showed a lot of character early, playing some really tough 5 and 6A schools,” Melissa head coach Jason Russell says of last season. “Then adversity jumped in the first [district] game against Bonham. They beat us and everybody is kind of scrambling, like, ‘What’s going on?’ — except for the kids. We just kept our heads down and kept working. We got hot at the right time and won some big games.”

Decatur “still sticks with me a little bit,” Russell says. “It was a heart-breaker. We got matched up with a kid that’s in the rotation at the University of Texas this year, then another kid who’s committed to Oklahoma State. … It just shows you how close we are. We battled.”

Melissa returns plenty of talent this season, including senior Tate Whittington, the District’s Co-MVP last year and its Offensive MVP as a sophomore. Senior Andrew Cole was last year’s district Pitcher of the Year and senior Adam Davis, a pitcher/infielder for the Cards, was 2017’s district Newcomer of the Year.

Cole posted a 1.57 ERA in 58 inning of work in the regular season with 50 strikeouts and also pitched the Cards to their 4-2 win over Decatur.

Also back are First-Team All-District pitcher/utility man Brady Morrison and sophomore outfielder Grayson Hurst. Returning Second-Team All-District picks are senior catcher Krisjon Segleski, junior infielder Isaiah Segovia and junior outfielder Sean Turnage.

“Since I’ve been here,” Russell says, “this is the most depth we’ve had. We’ve always said this, but this year it kind of stands true: That guy you think is behind you may not be behind you very long. You see those position battles every day in practice.”

As for pitching, Russell says, “The best thing about our guys is we know who we are. We don’t have a bunch of guys throwing 90 and striking out 15 a game. We have guys that pound the zone and change speeds and use their defense. … We have a bunch of good pitchers - no one that’s just really dominant.” Besides Cole, veterans Morrison, Whittington, Segleski, Davis and Turnage will take the mound, to name a few.

“Morrison wasn’t supposed to be a pitcher for us last year,” Russell says. “He comes in and wears out Whitehouse a little bit [in the non-district finale] and I’m thinking, ‘Well, maybe we’ve got something.’ He’s just a bulldog of a kid that goes out and gives you everything he’s got.”

Segleski was the closer as a sophomore before a minor injury kept him from pitching much last year. “He’s another guy that pounds the zone, changes speeds,” Russell says. “He’s got balls diving and moving all sorts of places. … [Tate] was the closer last year and saved a bunch of games for us.” Russell will also look to junior Dillon Youngblood for some innings, and to possibly join the rotation. “His brother was an ace my first year,” Russell says. “We go four rounds [in the playoffs] and he was our No. 1. So [Dillon] has that pedigree.”

Russell says he plans to bump Davis from DH, where he was much of last season, to first base.

“At second, we’ve got a battle. Brady Morrison is looking at maybe moving in from left field there. But we’ve also got a sophomore there, Tyler Womack, who’s nipping at his heels.”

Segovia moves from third base to shortstop, with sophomore Jayton Cepica behind him. Cole will hold down third when not pitching and Russell says it’ll be “by committee” after that. Segleski could see time at third too, as well as behind the plate where sophomore Trevor Brooks will also get a look.

In the outfield, sophomore Grayson Hurst returns to center and in left, Russell says, “Brady’s going to have a chance to come back out there depending on what happens at second. And we have senior Bobby Houston, who was on JV last year.” Whittington should roam in right.

“That’s a pretty fast, athletic outfield with some arm strength,” Russell says.

At the plate, Russell returns .451 hitter Whittington and .404 hitter Davis to the middle of the lineup. “And it’s probably the fastest lineup we’ve had since I have been here,” Russell says. “We have some guys that can get down the line. So we think we have some guys with some pop in the middle and speed around them that can manufacture some runs.”

Asked about potential team strengths, Russell notes senior leadership and defense. This season he welcomes back seven seniors, his most ever at Melissa. “They’re guys that have been in this for a few years now and they’ve had a lot of success. … We’re going to play good defense and I think we’re going to throw strikes. If you can do that you can win baseball games.”

A challenge for the Cards, Russell says, could be his defense’s youth up the middle. “That’s not really ideal. I would love to sit out there like last year and start two seniors [at second and short]. But we could potentially start two sophomores up the middle. And you count center field with Grayson - we could start a sophomore behind the plate, at short, at second and in centerfield. But I have confidence those guys can get the job done.”

Russell says 2018’s district race will be another tough slog. “We had two battles with Princeton [last year]. They have an unbelievable left-handed pitcher and they return everybody. Aubrey returns everybody. They might be the best hitting team in the district. Coach [Joey] Hector in Anna does a great job and you hear about their young guys coming up. Bonham, they’re always good. Celina was really young last year. You look at it and I don’t know if there’s a clear-cut leader.”

Of course a big plus for the Cards this season is their new home at the highly-anticipated Melissa Sports Facility, located out East Melissa Road. This crisp, new baseball venue features state-of-the-art turf and fan-friendly environs. “You drive out here and you get a big smile on your face,” Russell says. “It’s been awesome. Our administration did a great job and Mr. [Duke] Sparks did a great job designing and building this thing.”