While work set to begin on facility, Braves must fill key holes

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 31, 2004

LORMAN &045; There are technically two construction projects taking off this summer with Alcorn baseball.

There’s the team with its nucleus of young ball players, and then there’s the new facility. Neither may take a back seat as far as significance, and veteran head coach Willie &uot;Rat&uot; McGowan would sure love to bring a club that had just two seniors into the 2005 season with a new facility with new sources of revenue.

The facility, however, is under the least amount of his control with funding to come from the state. So he’ll continue with his end of the bargain in trying to put a winning team there to call it home.

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&uot;I hope so, but they’re freezing everything at Alcorn,&uot; said McGowan, who completed his 32nd season at the helm with his team finishing 20-22 and 15-17 in conference. &uot;We’re going to try to find out what the Senate is going to do. It’s in the Senate’s hands and the governor’s hands. All we’re doing is waiting and seeing how everything is going to turn out. I think they’ve got to do something.&uot;

The initial plan was to have construction start during the season with the Braves having the option of playing home games either in Vicksburg or Natchez. But that got scrapped for beginning at the end of the season.

McGowan said Rep. Philip West, D-Natchez, remains adamant about the project. It’s crucial for the future of the program in a conference that’s recently begun to really embrace baseball.

Athletic officials put in lights and a new outfield fence prior to the season, and the Braves hosted their first night game in school history.

&uot;This was not one of Rat’s better teams,&uot; Mississippi Valley head coach Doug Shanks said, &uot;but if they will build a facility, it should make some money and help the program. They don’t need to spend a whole lot of money, but it’ll pay for itself.&uot;

But the Braves’ focus now is on recruiting this summer to fill some holes and retaining the young crop of players for next season. With a squad of just two seniors and virtually no experience in the pitching department, the Braves played well down the stretch after a mid-season swoon nixed their chances of playing in the SWAC tournament.

It was a golden opportunity for them and the rest of the conference with powerhouse Southern in a rare down year. McGowan was on hand Saturday when upstart Texas Southern claimed the tournament title over Valley to enter the NCAA tournament with an 18-26 overall record and 15-13 mark in the conference.

&uot;If we would have played the first half like (the second), we would have been in that thing,&uot; McGowan said. &uot;We just got off to a horrible start. But I was proud of the way they played. I’ve invited them all back. I told them this has been a good year for us to win it and anybody could have won it &045; Valley, Alcorn or Jackson. Texas Southern’s record, when you look at it, is not better than mine.&uot;

It was enough for McGowan to prod the conference to return to the six-team tournament field instead of four. The Braves were shut out of the tournament in 2003 when the conference opted to take the top two teams from each division.

All the coach can do is get ready for 2005, and McGowan and graduate assistant Marqus Johnson will do so by picking up as many arms as possible. The pitching staff had no seniors this season, but entire the duties eventually fell on just seven pitchers going through a four-game series each weekend.

Much-heralded Trey Johnson ended up throwing one game and being sidelined with a sore arm. Often times on weekends the only relievers available were Micah Finch and Matt Chatwin.

But the starters did well, including late-bloomer Charles Sam. Hard-throwing right-hander Torry Bates had run-ins with the coaching staff despite leading the team in innings pitched.

&uot;I thought my pitching was going to hurt us, but I’ve got all my pitching coming back,&uot; McGowan said. &uot;They did a pretty good job. They could be even better because they’ll have a year under them. But you can’t get enough pitching. We’re going to try to get four or five more to what we already have. I think that’s what really won the tournament with Texas Southern and Valley &045; Texas Southern just had more pitching.&uot;

As far as position players, the Braves have to fill the shortstop and catcher slots with the departures of Shane Phillips behind the plate and Sly McClain at short. They were the team’s only seniors, and McGowan said back-up Scott Spillars may be ready to take over the position.

Spillars got significant playing time until he broke his thumb down the stretch. There’s also Matt Richter, who improved tremendously at the plate and played a number of position, including catcher.