By Rick Atkinson

For the Anna-Melissa Tribune

MELISSA – Melissa started hot in district play last year before finishing in a three-way, second-place tie with Sanger and Celina, at 6-4. After common-opponent tie-breakers were applied, Melissa wound up the district’s fourth playoff seed.

A tough break? Maybe, but those Cardinals went on to match the program’s deepest playoff run ever – a fourth-round appearance in the regional semifinals. And in that regional-semifinal series with Kilgore, Melissa (28-13) took the talented Bulldogs to the limit before falling, 4-3, in a Game 3 showdown that could’ve gone either way. It all pointed to a group of Cards that didn’t listen to others’ expectations.

“We knew people weren’t going to think a whole lot of us since we lost so much the year before,” Melissa head coach Jason Russell said recently at Melissa High School. “We knew we had a chance to be OK because of our arms. We thought that would keep us in it and we thought we would play pretty good defense. Then it was just a little bit of luck, a little bit of situational hitting and some good pitching.” As for that Kilgore series, Russell recalled, “We had them on the ropes [in Game 2] and we let them off of it. … In the playoffs, we always had that clutch hitter get a bunt down and in Game 3 against Kilgore we just couldn’t do it the way we had done it the other three series.”

Lost to graduation from that Melissa squad were four All-District players – shortstop Isaiah Segovia, left-fielder Dillon Youngblood, utility man Kyle Leonard and right-fielder Sean Turnage.

“They were awesome,” Russell said, “a group that surprised a lot of people. They weren’t the biggest guys, they weren’t necessarily the strongest guys, but they played hard and they played the right way. They’ll be missed.”

Russell’s top returning pitchers include senior All-District veterans Sam Crain and Grayson Hurst; junior Hayden Schafer, a 2019 District Co-Pitcher of the Year; and sophomore Coy DeFury, last year’s District Freshman of the Year.

Schafer, often called a “bulldog” on the mound by Russell, posted an 8-3 mark last season with five saves, while throwing 70.1 innings with a 1.54 ERA - both team-bests. Crain went 69.2 innings – second-most on the team – with an ERA of 2.47, a 6-4 record and a save. Hurst tossed 49 innings, with a 2.70 ERA and some clutch playoff performances.

“We like what we have on the mound,” Russell said. “But we’ve got guys coming up that are going to shock some people as well, I think.”

As for his two senior hurlers, Crain and Hurst, Russell said, “They’re more power-pitchers than what we’ve had in the past. But what makes them the same as the guys we’ve had is they’re just competitors. If you go to take them out, they’re going to fight you on that mound and try to keep that ball in their hand. … They’re going to throw strikes and they’re going to grind out innings.”

Regarding DeFury, Russell said, “You talk about a guy that’s transformed himself, he came into tryouts and threw 77 miles an hour. At the end of the year he threw 87. He’s a guy that just sold out to what we were doing and got a lot better. Then he goes in in the fourth round of the playoffs, a Game 3, and never flinches – throws his tail off.”

All-District catcher Trevor Brooks returns for his senior year. “He’s put on some really good weight,” Russell said. “He’s gotten really strong. He just looks like a different person now. … Trevor’s got a canon behind the plate. He’s one of the best receivers I’ve ever coached. With the added weight and strength – he always had a little bit of pop but I think he’s going to have more.” Juniors Braden Jackson and Hayden Nofziger will spell Brooks behind the plate.

Infield positions are still a work in progress, Russell said. “Jayton Cepica played first year but he’s a shortstop by trade, or middle infielder.” Russell added that Crain, Schafer and sophomore JP Roland are other solid options at first.

At second base, All-District senior Tyler Womack returns and looks to start again. “But we go in each year and each practice, and you’ve got to compete,” Russell said. “Jayton will get a look there too.”

Move-in senior Carlos Pirela is getting reps at shortstop. “He’s looked pretty good there, along with Jayton,” Russell said.

DeFury is back at third base with key back-ups being junior Mason Perkins and Jackson.

Another corner-infield prospect is junior Caleb Zschau, “a tall, long kid,” Russell said, “who can swing it a little bit.”

In the outfield, sophomore Damon Youngblood has recovered from a serious elbow injury last year and will likely hold down left. “He’s looked really good,” Russell said. “The sucker is a workout warrior. He’s extremely gifted.”

Hurst returns to centerfield when not pitching and, in right, juniors Parker Jack and Elijah Jones will see time. Youngblood slides to center when Hurst is on the mound.

On the hitting front, Cepica posted a .400 batting average in 100 at-bats last year and an on-base-percentage of .500 - both team-highs. Brooks came in at .391, with an on-base percentage of .484 in 128 at-bats. Womack finished with a .355 average and an on-base-percentage of .438 in 124 at-bats. Hurst, in 88 at-bats, hit .284 with a .366 on-base-percentage. DeFury, who tallied a team-best 26 RBI last year, and Youngblood should also be among that top slate of hitters.

“There’s been times when we’ve looked like a really good, elite offensive team and others where we haven’t,” Russell said. “I think we have a chance to be – 1 through 9 – pretty good at the plate. … My lineup that first game is never my lineup that last game. Last year, I was really high on Jayton, but I don’t know that I would’ve guessed he would hit in the 3-hole. He’s the only guy we have returning that hit .400.”

Now in his sixth year as Cards’ head coach, Russell’s program is well-established.

“Each year, when we start our [two-week] tryouts … we make everyone in that off-season program do the same thing – throw for velocity and distance, hit and field. We do the same thing at the end of the year. It’s fun to see, especially their freshman year, the bumps they have from the beginning of the season to the end of it. You see the growth from our throwing program to our weight program and how it benefits them.

“I think they all know that we’re going to go to work. They’re going to have to work hard and compete. Sometimes we don’t necessarily have the highest-ranked guy or that D-1 guy, but we usually have a pretty good team that plays really hard.

“Pitching and defense are going to be our life blood and what makes us tick. We’ll throw a lot of people out from the outfield at different bases. … In the infield, we’re going to make the routine play and every once in a while make that great play. But we’re going to catch the balls hit right at us and throw them out. On the mound we’re going to throw strikes.”

The Cards’ season-opener is Feb. 27, at home, versus Class 5A Royse City. They open district play March 24 at Anna.