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2013 Season Preview: Rangers Reload with Newcomers
February 13, 2013By Kevin Maloney of NORTHWEST MISSISSIPPI COMMUNITY COLLEGE
Northwest closed out the 2012 season with a 25-23 overall record and loss in the opening round of the state playoffs, falling to eventual state champions Hinds, 14-5 and 11-7 in a best-of-three series. The Rangers won six-straight games down the stretch to finish second in the north division at 16-8, but ran into the hottest team in the state who ran roughshod through the playoffs.
The 25 wins marked a sixth consecutive season the Rangers have won 25 or more games under current head coach Mark Carson and a 17th winning season in the last 18 years overall.
Record-breaking performances during the year included shortstop Josh Johnson breaking Chad Wardlaw’s school record in stolen bases, swiping 52 in 57 career chances, Cody Reed tossing the school’s first no-hitter in a decade, Colt Burns being named the NJCAA Division II National Pitcher of the Week and both Bradley Noland and Dex Herrington eclipsing 100 career hits.
As a team, Northwest closed the year with a .956 fielding percentage, which ranked 18th in the nation, and stole 108 bases on the year – the first time in school history with back-to-back 100 stolen base seasons.
Northwest hit under .300 as a team for just the second time in the last 15 years and faces the tall task of replacing 10 of its top 11 hitters from a year ago.
"We got off to a slow start overall but had some good hitters," Carson said. "The bats do make a difference, there’s no doubt about that. At our national convention in Chicago, it was a hot topic. The pitching philosophy has changed to throwing more strikes and not walking batters. Guys can hit a ball on the screws that have become routine plays in the outfield."
The Rangers return 11 players from last year’s team that qualified for the MACJC State Playoffs, but fell well short of expectations. Northwest welcomes 19 new faces to the squad, who, on paper, bring a ton of talent to the roster.
On the mound, Northwest returns its most reliable starter in left-hander Cody Reed in addition to Jim Tom Copeland, Reed Davis and Mitchell Flowers.
Reed, an Ole Miss signee, boasted the most wins by a freshman since 2000 after going 8-2 with a 2.94 ERA. He led the team in strikeouts (65), innings pitched (64.1), complete games (five) and shutouts (three) and tossed his first career no-hitter at Mississippi Delta on March 31.
Copeland appeared in 14 games last season out of the bullpen and led the team with a 1.83 ERA and three saves in 15.1 innings of work, while Davis saw action in five games and Flowers appeared in four.
As a team, Northwest had a 3.71 ERA, its lowest since the 2004 season. The Rangers held opponents to a .263 average and struck out 297 batters.
Northwest brings in eight new arms to the rotation this season, including highly touted right-handers Matt Ferguson, Tanner Cable and Cody Waddell.
Ferguson missed his entire senior season due to Tommy John surgery but has looked good in the spring as a late addition. Cable posted a 1.73 ERA his senior season at Southaven, while Waddell went 9-2 with a 0.79 ERA and 93 strikeouts at Warren Central and helped the Vikings to the playoffs.
Behind the plate, Cody Carson saw action in 16 games (seven starts) and will handle most of the work this season. Add in sophomore J.D. Tackett who played in 12 games last year and freshman Josh Brown and the Rangers once again have a nice rotation to do the dirty work.
"Cody and J.D. have looked really good in the preseason and I expect them to split a lot of time back there this season," Carson said. "You can do some different things with them since one of them is a left-hander and one is a righty. Josh has looked good this spring and we’ll also try and get him some innings."
Northwest threw out 23 runners last year behind the plate, led by Justin Rose with 14 and Tackett with five in 11 chances.
Garrett Blaylock, who split time at second and on the mound, is the lone returner in the infield. Blaylock missed the final 30 games of the season due to an elbow injury but is expected to get the start at third base this year.
"We’re expecting Blaylock to hit for power this year and can also use him at second if we need to," Carson said. "We have depth and some good options in the infield all around this season."
Freshmen Jay King, Brennan Pugh and James Lear have emerged as the names who will rotate as middle infielders and all three have great athleticism.
King led Bruce to the 2A state championship his senior season while hitting .462 from the plate and earned 2A NEMCABB Player of the Year honors. Pugh, who hit in the leadoff spot at Houston, helped the Hilltoppers to the second round of the playoffs, while Lear hit .337 as a senior at Oxford.
Northwest has three options at first base in King, Chase Clark and Jake Austin Smith. Clark, teammates with Jay King at Bruce, was the 2A Offensive Player of the Year and an all-state selection after hitting a monster .507 with 14 doubles and five home runs. Smith is fighting back from a knee injury suffered in an intrasquad game but should be ready to go for the season.
Middle infielders Bradley Noland (North Alabama) and Josh Johnson (Arkansas Tech) were two of four key losses from last year’s team. Noland became just the third Ranger in school history to win back-to-back batting crowns and closed his career 11th all-time in career hits with 107 while Johnson owns the school’s career record with 52 stolen bases.
With a host of returning talent and the addition of Jordan Barnes, Northwest’s outfield could shape up to be one of the best in the north division.
Barnes will anchor centerfield most of the year and could also play a corner spot. The freshman hit .414 his senior year at Arlington (Tenn.) and helped the Tigers to the TSSAA 3A State Championship.
Walt McCullough, Drew Pratt and Dylan Castoria are all back to roam the outfield and bring a good bit of experience. McCullough started 20 games in right last season and hit .290 with a 1.000 fielding percentage. Pratt saw action in 32 games, primarily used as a pinch runner for his speed. Castoria, who missed the entire season with an ankle injury, hit .326 back in 2011 and also didn’t commit an error in 29 chances.
"We’ll throw some infielders out there too thanks to our athleticism," Carson said. "Lear and Pugh will also drift out there and see some time."
Mark Carson enters the 2013 season with a career record of 197-153-2 (.563) and is just three wins shy of becoming the third coach in the program’s 85-year history to win 200 games in a career.
"Jim Miles and Donny Castle are the two guys that made me want to coach," Carson said. "Being under their leadership and the coaching of my dad, I always wanted to do this for a living. I’ve been here long enough that the numbers have started adding up and I’m in a great situation here at Northwest. I just want to continue the job that Jim and Donny started many years ago."
First pitch of the 2013 season, weather permitting, is set for Saturday, Feb. 16 at 1 p.m. against Southwest Tennessee. It will be a 9-7 inning doubleheader.
Live stats available all season long at www.sidearmstats.com/northwestms/baseball/index.htm.
Live video available for selected home/road games at www.ihigh.com/nwccrangers.
Follow the team on Twitter @NWCCBaseball or @NWCC_Rangers.