Lincoln looking to be region's surprise team

March 29, 2004|MIKE MARSEE

STANFORD - If the Lincoln County Patriots have it their way, no one will see them coming as they begin their quest to reach the top of the 12th Region.

Lincoln expects to contend with a senior-dominated team that returns all of last season's key players. Yet last year's team had a losing record, so the Patriots might not get much mention in conversations about the region's best teams.

"It's good to be the underdog and surprise people," senior Nate Rice said.

Still, it will be hard to surprise opponents with a lineup stocked with seniors.

"Winning the region is probably one of our main goals," senior Chris Hart said.

That's the same goal that all of Jimmy Hill's teams take into the season, but the message is more subtle than in years past.

Four years ago, before any of the team's current seniors were in high school, Lincoln's players were seen as early as midwinter in T-shirts reading "2000 Region Champs; Believe It." That goal proved too lofty for Lincoln, which lost in the district semifinals.


This year, there are no such proclamations.

"We're going to let our play do the talking," Hart said.

Patriots depending on seven seniors

How well the Patriots play depends largely on the performance of seven seniors, who have played together for the most part since their days on Little League all-star teams. But these players aren't relying on experience alone to take them where they want to go this spring.

Hill said they've shown a willingness to make themselves and their team better.

"They've invested a lot of time and effort to try to get back to the region for the third time in a row," Hill said. "They've been laying a lot of groundwork for this program, and these guys have a lot of pride."

The group of seniors includes Hart, who will play third base and is the Patriots' top pitcher; Rice, the leadoff hitter and shortstop and the No. 3 or 4 pitcher; Logan Boyd, who will spend less time at catcher and more in the outfield and is the No. 2 pitcher; Brett Witte, who has been moved to second base; Kayne Merriman, who moves from second base to take Boyd's place behind the plate; Andrew Peek, a defensive specialist in center field; and Byron Wall, who sat out last year but returns to the team this season.

"I think it's a special group because we've been playing together for so long," Hart said.

They hope that familiarity can breed success.

"It's just like at shortstop and third base, me and (Hart) have been playing together for so long, and we have so much ground to cover, we know where each other is going to be," Rice said.

But they know it takes hard work, too.

"We've got a real positive attitude," Witte said. "Everybody wants to get better, and we're working hard to improve."

Difficult schedule includes three tournaments

They've also braced themselves for a difficult schedule that includes tournaments in Louisville and at Woodford County and McCreary Central, as well as games with the likes of Lafayette, Rockcastle County, George Rogers Clark and Madison Central.

"If we play tough teams, we can only get better, seeing what they bring to us," Witte said.

"If you go against teams like (that), they have really good pitching and its going to make you a better team overall," Rice added.

One area where the Patriots need to improve is on offense. They were shut out four times last season, and they scored four runs or less in eight of their last 10 games.

"Our offense has to improve and get better from last year," Hart said. "Our defense and pitching have always been pretty good, but we have to pick up our offense."

Lincoln doesn't want a repeat of what happened in the first round of the regional tournament last season, when it lost 4-0 to Pulaski County.

"We missed a lot of opportunities in that game to take the lead," Witte said.

The Patriots took extra batting practice whenever they could throughout the fall and winter, and some of them played in fall leagues. They said they can already see results this spring.

"Lately in practice, our hitting has been coming on strong," Boyd said.

Opening game is Monday against Mercer

The Patriots hope they're still going strong when they open the season Monday against Mercer County.

"We need to start out strong and keep playing strong," Boyd said. "We're working hard; we've just got to keep developing."

But the players know it will be hard to tell just where they stand until the season starts.

"We need to see where we are and improve from there," Rice said. "Right now it's hard to tell where our whole team is, but I feel strongly that we'll be better than what we started off last year."

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