Last team standing:

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 21, 2002

Troy’s final tourney squad heads to state


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If Troy happens to lose a game in the upcoming Dixie Minor State Tournament, Nationals’ head coach Billy Hixon is determined that it not happen like last year.

Hixon, coaching the Troy Nationals for the second year in a row, and his team were eliminated by Fairhope in the 2001 tournament when the host team took advantage of Troy’s base runners not tagging up to record a rare triple play. It came in the third inning and although the Nationals were down in the contest, Hixon said he had every reason to be optimistic.

Prior to the three outs that is.

"We had started a little rally," he recalled Saturday at practice. Troy leaves for Thomasville today and will play Haleyville in the first game on Monday. "We had the bases loaded and no outs and the top of the order was coming up. I started feeling like we may be able to come back and then that happens."

That would be a hard hit ball into left field with all three Troy runners taking off from their respective bases, not bothering to wait and see if the ball would be fielded.

It was.

"The runners took off running," said Hixon. "Why, I don’t know. They (Fairhope) caught the fly ball, threw it to third for an out and then threw it to second for the triple play."

The play killed Troy’s rally hopes and Fairhope eliminated the Nationals from the state tournament.

Hixon made a promise.

"I said to myself then, ‘I know if I’m here next year, I’m going to make sure those runners know what to do," he said. "You learn from your mistakes. You learn every year. You can’t replace experience."

Hixon didn’t wait until Troy had secured a state tournament berth either. When he was named head coach of the Nationals in mid-June, the first thing he did in practice was put runners on the bases and send fly balls into the outfield.

Will Starling, Ross Hixon and Lloyd Shillabeer are the three returnee. Like most Dixie Minor tournament teams, the majority of Troy’s squad is made up of 10-year olds. Hixon said it’s hard to compare last year’s team to the one this year, a team that has one 10 ball games.

"I like to say that last year we had more power, but this year we’ve hit four home runs," Hixon said. "Last year we only had one. But we had a big team last year. We’d go to tournaments and everybody would be like, ‘I want to see their birth certificates.’ We had some big boys. But I think this year we’re smaller and faster."

Hixon said he likes to put Troy’s overall team speed to their advantage, but must exercise caution in a tournament game.

"I like to run the bases quite a bit," he said. "But in tournament ball you can’t be quite as aggressive because you’ve got players on the other team that can throw and catch. It’s a little different then league play. In a tournament, those players on defense know exactly what to do and when that relay comes in they’re looking to throw."

Getting on the bags is something this Troy National team is good at. Their team On Base Percentage is over 500. Troy has scored 89 runs this postseason.

And according to Hixon, run support is something the Nationals’ pitching staff is going to need in the state tournament.

"You can always pitch better with a big lead, then when it’s 1-0 or 1-1" he said.

Starling, Hixon, Nathan Barron and Shillabeer will be called on to shoulder much of Troy’s pitching load. The rotation has a combined Earned Run Average of 2.42. Starling has appeared in five games, won four and struck out 45 batters versus 18 walks.

What makes all four, including Sam Carroll, effective, said Hixon, is that each consistently throws strikes.

"Before anyone of them goes out to the mound, I tell them ‘nothing fancy, just throw strikes," he said. "There’s no way to defend a walk. I’d rather get beat with hits then walks. A walk will just kill you. A strike is the most important thing, whether it’s going 20 miles per hour or 80. That’s one thing they’ve done."

However, with Dixie Baseball rules limiting pitchers to a certain amount of innings per tournament, Hixon admitted that he could use a few more pitchers.

"Nathan Barron’s done a good job and Lloyd Shillabeer has taken up some of the slack," he said. "Nathan has been the biggest surprise as a pitcher. I had a feeling he could do it and he has come through for us. He hasn’t pitched a complete game, but he’s given us some good innings."

Barron has also come through at the plate, hitting three of Troy’s four homers this season. Carroll has also hit a home run.

Times have changed since Hixon played recreation baseball. He remembered one of his Dixie Boys coaches criticizing his effort during one ball game.

"I had one ball hit over my head," he said. "I didn’t drop it. It was just a hard hit ball. But he (the coach) met me at the dugout and let me have it for everything I was worth. He told me, ‘you may not care about this game, but you have eight teammates that do.’ But I was the type that I could take it and he was just trying to make me better. It’s a different era now. These kids can’t take that kind of criticism."

Nor should they have to, according to Hixon.

"You have to keep telling yourself that they’re nine and 10-years-old and you see professionals getting paid millions make the same mistakes they do," Hixon said. "You can’t get too hard on them. I don’t get in their face. We’ve had some drop a fly ball and I haven’t said anything to them yet. They feel worse then anybody on the field and they don’t need anybody reminding them."

Hixon said Troy’s third straight trip to the state tournament has been a "total team effort."

"There’s not a kid on this team that hasn’t contributed somewhere," he said. "Whether it be with a timely hit or a catch in the outfield, they’ve come through in clutch situations. Jayden Barnes has played real solid in left field…he’s made some big catches. Nathan Barron in center field has made some good plays. Chance Shaver has played a solid second base."

The parents and community have also been supportive, making donations, selling tickets and providing food for after-practice meals.

"I’m sure some of them hasn’t been happy with some of my coaching," Hixon joked. "But no one’s said a word to me. Everything’s been positive and that’s the formula for a winning team. Everybody seems like they’re having fun. On a lot of teams, the kids are split, the parents are split and the coaches are split. Not here."

Hixon cut practices down to every other night this week with attention being paid to infield and outfield hitting, in particularly bunting.

Oh, and they also practiced their base running.

"I hope we don’t get a triple play turned on us this year," Hixon said, smiling.