Lee County senior Andrew Stroud will hit cleanup for the Trojans this season.
LEESBURG — It’s been a quarter-century of excellence for Lee County baseball and head coach Rob Williams.
Williams, entering his 25th year at the helm of Trojans’ baseball, is back and so is Lee County after a 20-9 run in 2012 ended in the Sweet 16 of the Class AAAA playoffs. The Trojans (0-1), who play at home Thursday against Chiles, Fla., are well-stocked in the arms race with four solid starters soon to be available and a lineup that has much to prove after losing two stars to Athens.
2012 Herald Player of the Year Daniel Nichols, who is third all-time in home runs in a season at Lee County after mashing 11 last season, is gone to the University of Georgia and so is Jess Posey, brother of former Lee County great and reigning MLB Most Valuable Player Buster Posey. Jess Posey went 7-1 last year for the Trojans on the mound.
“They were good,” Lee County senior Andrew Stroud said. “But like coach says, ‘Nobody is irreplaceable.’ ”
Stroud will shoulder the burden as the Trojans’ cleanup hitter to try to lead Lee County to that elusive state title that has escaped the program for so long. Stroud, a Middle Georgia College signee, is coming off ACL surgery following an injury during the football season and appears close to being fully recovered.
He homered on opening day for the second consecutive year in a 12-7 loss to Class AAAA power Crisp County Thursday in his first at-bat of 2013 and first since the knee operation.
Williams said Stroud, who started in centerfield last season and hit .365 with four homers and 26 RBI, has been cleared to do everything but run the bases.
“That first at bat he took that off the table,” Williams said of Stroud, who only needed to jog around the basepaths. Stroud will go back to the doctor March 11 and said he expects to be given the go-ahead to play the outfield and run bases on March 12.
Lee County will also have a watchful eye on him this season after the passing of Stroud’s grandfather in the offseason.
“It’s kind of emotional because my grandfather has always been in the stands and he passed away,” Stroud said after homering in the opener. “That’s all I could think about.”
In the No. 3 hole is junior catcher Jack Bell, who caught fire last season after joining the varsity team a month into the season and hit .571 the rest of the way.
“He works hard in the cages, and he’s a good hitter,” Stroud said of Bell. “That’s why he’s (hitting third).”
That .571 average technically ranks Bell as the all-time batting average leader in a single season in Lee County history despite missing the first month while playing junior varsity.
“When you hit like that, it’s hard to get him out of the lineup,” Williams said of Bell, who will DH some with Steve Edwards behind the plate. “We feel like we have two starting catchers back there. In high school, you don’t get that often.”
Senior Casey Highower will hit leadoff and play center with Stroud in the DH spot until mid-March, and Nick Bush will play left and hit in the No. 2 spot as a sophomore. Bush and pitcher Matt Hatcher are the only two 10th-graders on the team.
Former Lee County quarterback and senior Matt Mears will man the hot corner, pitch in relief and hit near the middle of the order. Junior Dalton Daniel will play shortstop, while junior Mason Wisener holds down second, although Bryce Moye will also play there. Senior Austin Joiner will play first along with Chad Moore.
Luke Early, Bush and Hightower patrol the outfield while Stroud is out, although Early can play on the infield as well during the season. Junior Nick Bruner, just returning from the wrestling mat, will also play in the outfield.
The pitching should be solid, anchored by ace Chris Mosley, who signed with Middle Georgia College after going 7-2 as a junior last season with a 3.84 ERA. Mosley struck out 62 in 45 2/3 innings last year with a high 80s fastball and an improving breaking pitch.
He was pulled in the second inning in the opener after throwing nearly 50 pitches in the inning, but Williams believes his senior will bounce back.
“(Detriot Tigers ace) Justin Verlander can’t get by pitching behind in the count,” Williams said. “We’ve got to do a better job of getting ahead.”
Trojans’ No. 2 starter Brent Kyzar had a strong offseason in the travel ball circuit and pitched well in the opener in relief. Kyzar and Mosley give the Trojans two solid southpaws with above-average off-speed pitches. Add Hatcher to the mix as the No. 3 starter and the rotation is set.
“We’re going to have a great rotation,” Kyzar said. “We’ve just got to live low (in the zone) and stay simple.”
Hatcher pitched well as a freshman, which is rarely done at Lee County, and looked solid in his first appearance Thursday, despite walking three batters.
Junior T.J. Roberts is currently out with a sore throwing shoulder, but he and Mosley have hit 90 miles per hour on the radar gun and Roberts can provide another flamethrower to the rotation or the bullpen.
“His last two bullpen (sessions) have been extremely good,” Williams said of Roberts. “He’s going to be a real shot in the arm for us.”
Senior Ty McAllister would have been another potential starter/reliever, but Williams said he is no longer with the team. Senior Chad Moore and junior Chris Hayes will also give Lee County added pitching depth.
The Trojans, who have won five of the last six region titles, open the Region 1-AAAAA schedule March 1 at Trojan Field against Harris County.