Bell City baseball looks for one more championship to cap off seniors' careers

Saturday, March 18, 2017
From left, Cole Nichols, Austin Hicks, Bobby Wright and coach Justin Simpher pose for a photo during practice Thursday in Bell City. Nichols, Hicks and Wright were integral parts of the Cubs' last two title-winning teams.
Andrew J. Whitaker

BELL CITY, Mo. -- For Bell City baseball's six seniors, the end is near. The group, which makes up nearly half of the Cubs' roster, has helped the program claim back-to-back state championships.

Now, they are looking to end their high school careers on a high note with another Class 1 state title.

While the Cubs, whose season began Saturday with a 14-1 win over Eminence, lost four starters from last year's title-winning squad, they return five senior starters, including the Southeast Missourian Player of the Year in Cole Nichols. All-Missourian selection Austin Hicks is also back, and the duo provides a formidable one-two punch on the mound. Behind the plate, there's Bobby Wright.

All three seniors have been integral parts of Bell City's past two state titles, and in their last season on the diamond together, the trio hopes to continue the program's winning tradition.

"You always want to go out with a bang, you know," said Wright, who also pitches. "We're all going to go our separate ways after we graduate, whether we go to college after school or not. But yeah, you always want to give your brothers the best chance you can in your last year with them."

Bell City baseball practice Thursday, March 16, 2017 in Bell City.
Andrew J. Whitaker ~ Southeast Missourian

Wright, Nichols, and Hicks all plan to play baseball in college -- Jefferson College for Hicks, Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods for Nichols, and either Mineral Area College or Maple Woods for Wright, the catcher said. So the three understand there's a good chance they won't be teammates in college and have joked about facing off against each other at the next level.

For now, though, they are focused on the present. And despite past success, Bell City isn't resting on its laurels.

It's a new year, coach Justin Simpher constantly tells his 14 players. That message is reinforced by the trio of seniors that hold everyone accountable, including themselves.

Whenever someone makes an error, whether they are a senior starter or a freshman, they have to run to one of the foul poles just behind the outfield wall and then back to their position.

"We've got guys that are vocal leaders, and I'm all about that," Simpher said. "I like vocal leaders, but you've got to have guys that lead by example as well. You can't be the person always telling somebody to do something and not lead by example. So I'm okay with just leading by example. Those guys that have been there, they do that.

"If people want to take breaks, they don't let them take breaks, and it makes our job as coaches much easier because you have those kids that are like, 'Hey, we've got to do better than this. Let's go. Let's go get a pole.' They take care of that and the coaches don't have to and that just comes with their drive and wanting to do those things and knowing what it takes and wanting to hold each other accountable. That's the big thing."

It helps that this group of seniors has experienced disappointment along with success. Before the run of two straight championships began, Nichols, Wright, and Hicks and the others suffered through a sub-.500 season as freshmen.

Cole Nichols poses for a photo during practice Thursday, March 16, 2017 in Bell City.
Andrew J. Whitaker ~ Southeast Missourian

That campaign isn't far from Wright's mind now.

"We know we've been at the bottom and the top," Wright said, standing along the third-base line at Bell City's field. "I feel like we have a good attitude going into like we have the past two years."

While Wright returns at catcher and provides another solid arm behind Nichols and Hicks, the Cubs do have to replace four starters. Third baseman Nate Finney, first baseman Tyler Evans, right fielder Brandon Abner and center fielder Peyton Maddox are gone. Luckily for Simpher, he can turn to players who contributed on last year's team.

Juniors Chase Dembowski and Kenny Bradshaw were always pushing the players ahead of them to get better last year, Simpher said, and now they'll be rewarded with full-time starting spots. Dembowski will likely slot in at third, while Bradshaw will play in the outfield.

Sophomore Evan Smith will get a chance to replace Evans, and junior Logan Yates will patrol the outfield. This is Yates' first year playing baseball for the Cubs, Simpher said, but he played the sport growing up.

"Obviously some big holes to fill, you know," Simpher said of the four departed starters. "But nice that we had guys that were always pushing those guys, so it got them better. Now they're getting their chance. They're ready to get that opportunity and hopefully take advantage of it."

Along with Nichols, Hicks and Wright, Bell City returns senior starters Taylor Ogden (outfield) and Jesse Smith (second base), who had seven putouts in last year's 7-2 championship win over New Covenant Academy.

Nichols plays shortstop and the outfield when he isn't pitching. Hicks also plays short and can fill in behind the plate when Wright's on the mound.

All three have pitched in high-pressure playoff games. Nichols threw a complete game against New Covenant. A few games before, Hicks tossed a no-hitter in a quarterfinal victory.

"It definitely helps having some experience, especially in your starting rotation with seniors that have played in those games, and we know what it takes," Hicks said. "I wouldn't say it gives us an edge, but you like having the experience there."

From left, Austin Hicks, Cole Nichols and Bobbie Wright, pose for a photo during practice Thursday, March 16, 2017 in Bell City.
Andrew J. Whitaker ~ Southeast Missourian

Behind Nichols, Hicks and Wright, Ogden and Dembowski will provide pitching depth. A stable of reliable arms will be crucial this season with new pitch count restrictions coming into effect. A junior or senior can throw a maximum of 105 pitches on four days rest. On fewer days of rest, that number decreases. Freshmen and sophomores can throw a maximum of 95 on four days rest.

"To have the pitching staff that we have, it's obviously nice with the new rules and everything," Simpher said. "It's going to be very crucial. We've got some other guys stepping in for us that are going to throw for us this year. It's nice getting the guys we haven't relied on as much in the past, getting them that game experience. So we're looking to do that because you never know when you're going to need them."

While Bell City wants another state ring, it is making sure it doesn't get caught looking ahead. If the Cubs focus on the games at hand, they believe success will come.

They also don't want to get caught up too much in judging a season solely by crowns captured. After all, as Wright pointed out, "you never know what's going to happen as far as playoffs go." So cliche as it may sound, the Cubs are trying to just take it one game at a time. The rest will take care of itself.

"We're playing every game," Nichols said. "You play the next game. You're not trying to play games before, but for anybody [a state title's] the dream. That's what you want to do."

The players also understand this isn't the same Cubs team as last year. It's a new group with new chemistry and new contributors. But the core remains, and the five returning senior starters know what it takes to succeed at the state level.

So they hope that when the dust settles in early June, the group can be celebrating another state title and a joyous ending to some decorated high school careers.

"It's extra motivation to want to go out on top," Hicks said. "That way we can say in 10 or 15 years that we were able to go out being the best team in the state. There's that extra motivation there."

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