Archive for Thursday, March 24, 2005

Braves hoping to take the next step

March 24, 2005

To fully understand the meaning of this story, you have to know Bonner Springs High School baseball coach Rick Moulin well.

You have to know that he spent his life idolizing former Kansas City Royals great George Brett. You have to know that he named his son "Brett" in homage to the Hall of Famer. You have to know that he once wrote a letter to Brett, yet never sent it, citing the fact that he simply didn't want to disturb the man he admired so much.

On top of that, you have to understand that for as long as Moulin -- a 1990 graduate of BSHS -- has been suiting up in cleats and a pin stripes, he has worn the number 5 to honor his favorite baseball player.

And then you have to understand that in the drop of a hat, Moulin gave up that number and passed it on to Bonner Springs junior Jacob Nelson.

Nelson, the Braves' starting second baseman whom Moulin dubbed "the hardest working baseball player I've ever been around," has requested the sacred number since he joined the Bonner Springs baseball family two years ago.

Like Moulin, Nelson also admires Brett, even if he is too young to remember the pine tar incident or fully appreciate Brett's performance in 1980.

However, each time Nelson asked for the number, Moulin said no way. The second time Nelson asked, Moulin made him a deal. He told his young second baseman that if he hit .400 at the varsity level, he could have the number.

Nelson came close, but only swung the stick to the tune of .340 last season.

But this off-season, he did something much more important. He worked his butt off.

He ran sprints in the summer and played on a traveling team with his Bonner Springs teammates. He ran stairs and careened through the hallways in the dead of winter, sometimes wearing a stocking cap while doing so.

And because of this effort, this desire to mold himself into a better baseball player, this yearning to put himself and his team in the position to succeed, Nelson earned the right to wear No. 5, while also earning the utmost respect from his coach.

"The one thing I want people to understand here is that this isn't about me," Moulin said. "This isn't about a coach being nice. I don't care if Jacob Nelson hits .200 or .600, I'm giving him the number because he deserves it. He plays the game the way it's supposed to be played, and those are the types of kids we have on this team."

For the most part, they're the same players who were on last year's squad, but this time around they're armed with another year of experience, more confidence and the utter understanding that baseball is a game that should be enjoyed, not dreaded.

Almost to a man, this year's team has entered the season with a new focus and more dedication. Heck, as a team, they've even made a statement that goes a long way in showing just how serious they are about having success this season. Late last year, the squad elected to turn down an invitation to play in its third straight Frank White Classic game at Kauffman Stadium.

"We want to focus more on winning baseball games this year," Moulin said. "Not selling tickets. Besides that, the same people supported us the past couple of years in terms of buying tickets, and we wanted to give them a break."

So instead of shelling out the cash to see their Braves play at the big league field down the road, this year's Bonner Springs fans will have to be content with driving down to the Bonner Springs campus and watching a team that promises to be much more competitive.

Moulin is entering his third season as the Braves head coach.

His first year, he inherited a group of players who never seemed to get on the same page. They won eight or nine games that season, but none of them came easy. Last year, things got even worse. With a lineup littered with freshmen and sophomores, the Braves won just three games. This year, the team expects things to be different.

"I'm not going to say we're going to win every game," Moulin said. "But I know we'll be more competitive. I'm more excited about baseball this year than I have been in a long time, and a big reason for that is the type of kids we have. They're passionate about the game, and they just love baseball."

The perfect fit for a coach who feels the same.

Equipped with a batting order that should be among the most potent in the league, as well as an infield that will be as experienced, talented and fundamentally sound as any, the Braves figure to have just one weakness as they get set to throw out the first pitch of the season Tuesday against Wyandotte. Moulin's just not sure who his outfield will be.

With five or six guys battling for three spots, Moulin said he knows the talent is there, but the experience may not be.

Jordan Lamb and Adam Carver both have some varsity experience. They will both likely see time in the outfield. Utility man Patrick Redlin, who can play infield or outfield, saw a brief stint at the varsity level last year, and he would likely be a good candidate for an outfield spot, as well. Junior varsity standouts Travis Hubbel and Matt Rivera are also making noise, and junior Mitch Lewis, who may have the best bat of the bunch, will also get a look.

Moulin said having an unknown outfield can be a good thing and a bad thing.

"It can be both," he said. "I know I have guys who want it, and who are competing, but at the same time it would be nice to have one or two guys with a lot of experience to plug in out there, guys you know you can count on."

The infield is a different story, as all five positions are pretty much set in stone. Up the middle, Nelson holds down second base and junior Jeff Hern will play shortstop. Both are solid, athletic and work well together, Moulin said.

Junior Josh Palcher (1B) and senior Keith Frazier (3B) will man the corners, and both are known for their toughness and ability to play gritty, gutty defense.

Behind the dish, three-year starter Billy Ballard returns to run the team and handle the Braves' young pitching staff.

The Bonner Springs pitchers are young, but slightly proven. Mike Pier, a power hitter and power pitcher, will see some time on the mound, as will Hern and junior Josh Ova. Those three will likely anchor the Braves starting rotation, with a myriad of others filling the gaps in the bullpen.

As Moulin, who now wears No. 7, sat and talked about his team, he often stopped short of completing his thoughts. He's excited. There's no disputing that. But he doesn't want to get too far ahead of himself. After all, nothing's changed just yet.

"We've got a lot to prove this year," Moulin said. "When you win three games the year before, people don't expect you

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