By Rick Atkinson
For the Anna-Melissa Tribune
ANNA – It was a tough finish to last year’s season for the 19-6 Anna Coyotes. Needing to win their last three district games to reach a 5-5 mark and post-season play, the Coyotes did just that - but needed some help at the end … and didn’t get it.
“It was frustrating,” eighth-year Anna head coach Joey Hector said recently at Anna High School, “but we brought it on ourselves.”
The up-and-down year for Anna included a 13-0 non-district start, a 2-3 first round in district play - and the aforementioned unrewarded push to the finish.
“The season started off real good,” Hector said, adding, “I think the majority of that is we didn’t play very tough opponents early on. Then we got into district and took a couple of lumps in the first round. It took us a while to get a few of our guys going.
“We’ve toughened up the schedule this year. We have several Top 10 opponents on our schedule this year before district starts.”
The three seniors to whom Hector bid farewell after last season - outfielder Mason Simmons, All-District pitcher Zach Howard and All-District infielder Dylan Burr - were key contributors on Anna teams that posted a program-best four-year record of 64-40.
“They were some good leaders - guys you could depend on,” Hector said. “We’ll have our hands full replacing them, but we feel like we can. There are obviously certain things you can’t replace with somebody like Zach Howard or Mason Simmons. They played every inning of every game for three years. But we’ve got some kids … that we feel can bring some stuff to the table.
“This should be the best team we’ve put on the field in quite some time, as far as playing the game.”
Texas A&M-commit Rawley Hector will again anchor the Coyotes’ pitching staff. The 6-2 right-hander has packed on 20 pounds since September and now tips the scales at a solid 194. Rawley, a two-time USA Baseball National Team veteran, was also a First-Team All-State shortstop and the district’s Offensive MVP a year ago, hitting .621 with a .734 on-base percentage.
“Rawley will be our guy,” Hector said. “He’s put on quite a bit of muscle. Whether that translates onto the baseball field, we’ll find out. But we feel good about where he’s at. And we feel good about the guys we can put around him, defensively and offensively, this year.” Hector adds, “It takes more than one kid to make a team.”
Junior Jaden Torres returns to the mound as well after some injuries last season. “He’s pretty solid,” Hector said. “He would have been up there competing for a top spot last year if he was healthy.”
Then, freshman Collyn Swindell, who’s clocking in the mid- to upper-70s; junior Jaden Adams, an All-District utility man last season; junior Dylan Crawford; and All-District catcher Jacob Odom, a low-80s guy, will round out the staff.
“Our pitchers had a really good off-season,” Hector said. “We feel like we can compete on the mound good enough to win games. We’ve got to do a better job of executing pitches. That cost us last year in the first round of district.”
Behind the plate, Odom returns for his junior campaign. “He can handle all our pitchers,” Hector said. “He can handle our upper-velocity guys and our lower-velocity guys. He’s a good defensive catcher and he communicates well. He has a good arm and he’s played a lot of baseball. He’s a guy that some college is going to come get sometime this spring.”
Backing up Odom will be juniors Joey Montano and Carter McFadden.
At first base, Hector has options, including sophomore Jay Heath, senior Jayden Rodgers - who’s still in basketball - sophomore Clayton McCaleb and Montano.
Over at second, Crawford, Swindell and Devin Hunter are getting reps.
At third, the plan is to move Rawley there from shortstop. Torres and Crawford will also see time at the 3-bag, Hector said.
Newcomer Micaiah Ross - a cornerback for the football Coyotes - is getting a look at shortstop. “He’s got good hands and good range,” Hector said. “If he can handle the load [there] that frees up Rawley to move to third.”
In the outfield, five returning Coyotes are vying for spots. “This will probably be the best outfield we’ve had,” Hector said, noting sophomore Michael Burnside, junior Josh Packard, the second-base starter last year, junior Bryce Wetzel, junior Michael Sarro and Adams.
Regarding the bats, Hector noted, “We’ve hit the ball well in the few practices we’ve had and in the winter league we participated in. … We’ve simplified some approaches and worked on some mental things with a few of the guys.”
A hitter sure to get plenty of opponents’ attention is Rawley Hector, who swatted six doubles, five triples and six home runs last year, with 27 RBI, 42 runs scored and 24 stolen bases. Then there’s Odom, who swung for a .416 average, with eight doubles, four triples and two homers, for 26 RBI.
Looking at the district, Hector said, “We open at Melissa. Then you’ve got Aubrey, then Celina. Celina’s got three Division I commits, all young kids. Aubrey, they’ve got two Division I commits. Melissa’s got a couple of guys that are college-bound - [pitcher] Sam Crain being one of them. This district is probably one of the top districts in the state, as far as number of college-committed players.
“To me, Celina is the best team in this district. That’s taking nothing away from Aubrey, Sanger, Gainesville, Melissa or ourselves. … We’re looking forward to our chance. We’re ready to play whoever we’ve got to play and we feel like our team can compete with anybody.”
The Coyotes’ season-opener is Feb. 25 at Class 4A Farmersville.
Leadership and pitching will be Anna strengths this year, Hector said. “I think our pitching is solid. I think our guy can go against anybody and beat anybody on any given night. And, defensively, we’re going to be a whole better than we’ve been in the past.” He added, “I think the way we play the game is a strength. When people play us, they know we’re going to respect the game.”
As for team goals, Hector said, “We don’t even focus too much on winning, to be honest with you. I’m trying to build some confidence with the kids, by the way they work. There are some teams around here that run their mouth - that’s how they get their confidence. I don’t think that’s the way to teach young people. … If we can just get better every day and take care of what we can take of, then that’s really all I’m trying to teach these guys.”
Hector’s tenure at Anna is his second-longest as a head baseball coach, having served nine years at Gilmer prior coming here. “To see how far it’s come, it’s rewarding,” Hector said of his time at AHS. “It’s a challenge here. We don’t have the same make-up as other schools around here, as far as our kids and baseball. Everybody else has a lot of kids that play Select baseball. … We understand that. We try to thrive off that and do the best we can. I’m proud of where it’s at.
“Obviously, you always want more but I understand what we have to do - and what we’ve done - to get it to where it’s at. But it’s never going to be enough. My time at some point is going to come to an end here, for any number of reasons. I feel like whenever that time comes we’ve left it a whole lot better than we found it. … I’m very blessed from the standpoint of the support that we get.”
DISTRICT 11-4A BASEBALL
Prediction (not guaranteed)