By Scott Walters/(Columbus) Commerical Dispatch
STARKVILLE — Danny Carlisle still feels the excitement as he prepares to kick off his 29th season as a high school baseball coach.
“You always look forward to opening day,” said Carlisle, who will lead the Starkville High School. “The excitement is as great for this year and it was for my first year. The excitement is there. The enthusiasm is there. Whether it’s the first practice or, later on, the first game, there is an anticipation for opening day like no other sport.”
High school baseball teams could begin practice Wednesday.
The offseason has been a tumultuous one for Carlisle, a 1971 Starkville High graduate. Carlisle retired as a teacher last September. The balance of the year was shrouded in doubt about who would coach the school’s baseball team in 2012. Earlier this month, the Starkville School District School Board put a plan in place where Carlisle could draw his retirement, work as a part-time employee and coach one final season.
“This will be my last year, and it is going to be special. I think we will have a nice team. We have some youth mixed in with some veterans. We had a couple of players move in who will help us on the mound. The kids have come back with a great attitude. It is just a matter of getting back to work,” Carlisle said.
The Yellow Jackets will open the season Feb. 18 when they play host to Ackerman, East Webster, and Louisville in a preseason jamboree.
“I really can’t wait,” Starkville senior pitcher/first baseman/outfielder Nathan Pugh said. “Not many people are expecting much from us. I think we can win some ballgames. I am real excited. We got talent. We are pretty young, but we have a bunch of leaders on this team.”
Carlisle, a two-time state of Mississippi coach of the year, has won more than 500 games at Starkville High. Under his guidance, Starkville won the 1986, 1987, and 1991 Class 5A state championships.
“Over my span as a head coach, I have built some great relationships,” Carlisle said. “These are strong relationships, and they mean a lot to me.
“R.J. Johnson and Marcus Thames are out here helping us. R.J. graduated from here and is trying to make it in pro ball. Marcus is from Winston County and now lives in Starkville. He is playing now in the big leagues. Percentages are very low that you can play baseball for a living. These two men have had success and are a great influence on the younger players.
“They are showing the guys what it takes to make the next level. For most people, baseball is not a lifelong game. You have to be an exceptional player. The key is to always work hard though because you never know who is watching.”
The Yellow Jackets suffered through a 9-12 season in 2011. Starkville remained in contention for a postseason berth until the final night of the regular season.
“We need to play together as a team more this year,” said Pugh, who has signed with Pearl River Community College. “We need to get a good chemistry going. Last year, we had selfish things which caused destruction on the team. We didn’t play together as a team. However, those things have been straightened out. We are going to be a lot better this year.
“We need to play as a team. That is important. You can’t be selfish. You have to think about your team first.”
Carlisle said the primary focus of February practice will be to find a first baseman, third baseman, and a catcher. Middle infielders Max Bartlett and Jordan Allgood return, as well as a solid outfield of Pugh, Victor Johnson, and Daniel Murphree.
The pitching staff should be in good hands with Pugh, Nick Brooks, Jason Clanton, and Tanner Clanton.
“What we are stressing is not taking anything for granted,” Carlisle said. “Don’t take a practice for granted. Don’t take a game for granted. Give it all every time you go out there. If you are a senior, this is your last opportunity to do something great.
“You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. We have 18 days before our first scrimmage. There is a lot of work to be done. I think the attitude is right though. Hopefully, everything will work out for us.”
Again, Carlisle will use his secret formula for success: playing the best players on his team.
“I have always said baseball parents know more than parents of any other sport,” Carlisle said. “These parents have either played or coached little league baseball. Everyone wants you to play the eight best players you have and their son. It does not matter what level you are on. If you are doing that, you are the greatest coach ever. If not, you can’t coach.
“Some people will like you. Some people will not like you. Others simply don’t care. That’s how it works. I am used to it. It is part of the business. Hopefully, this year we can put out there the best players and make a run.”
From one senior’s standpoint, Pugh feels honored to be part of Carlisle’s final team.
“I feel privileged to be on his team for his final season,” Pugh said. “He is a legendary coach. To be able to end my high school as he ends his is very cool to me. I learned a lot on the baseball field under him. I also learned a lot away from the field. I learned how to step up and be a man. Those are the kinds of things he has taught me.”