Even sage St. Thomas More baseball coach Gary Perkins isn’t too comfortable with all the national preseason adulation that’s poured in for his team.
It’s one thing to distinguish yourself as one of the best programs in your state, which the Cougars did a year ago with the school’s first Class 4A championship in 12 years.
The 31-5 finish, which included 23 consecutive wins to close the year, raised some eyebrows but not in comparison to the preseason rankings that accompany this year’s STM team, which scrimmaged Saturday.
They will take part in a jamboree next Saturday at Barbe before officially opening the season Feb. 26 in the WGNO Classic in New Orleans with games against Rummel, St. Paul’s, Chalmette and Fontainebleau.
“There’s no one here walking around thinking we’re nationally ranked,” said Perkins, who has a 126-37 record and won five district titles in five seasons at STM. “We don’t pay attention to that. I admit I think we should be in the top 50, maybe top 30, but not top 10.”
STM features college signees in outfielder O’Neal Lochridge and infielder/pitcher Brennan Breaux — both of whom are headed to LSU — along with left-handed pitcher Hogan Harris, who has signed with Louisiana-Lafayette.
Harris, who missed a good part of his junior season with a shoulder injury, has earned preseason All-American honors and is regarded as the state’s top player.
“I think the national ranking is off of the guys we have that are headed to the next level,” Perkins said. “We don’t even talk about the national rankings much. They can read it or hear people but truly when we’re at practice there’s no one running around saying we’re ranked whatever.
“We know we’ve got a lot of work to do. If the kids are thinking we’re just going to show up and roll the ball out, that’s just not going to happen. I don’t think the kids are looking at that or feel any pressure. They all know we’ve got to start the season off, improve as a team and find some chemistry. It seems like a group that likes each other, and they’re working well together.”
The seven seniors from last year’s squad were not only largely responsible for STM earning the school’s third state championship, but helping the Cougars to the 2013 title game.
Gone are three, first-team Class 4A All-State selections, including Outstanding Player Chase Vallot, the 40th overall selection of the Kansas City Royals.
The Cougars are also without the services of junior infielder/pitcher Mason Templet, an LSU commitment, until at least April because of a shoulder injury suffered during the football season that required surgery.
Lochridge is one player STM’s counting on to help offset the void left by Vallot, who batted .545 with 13 homers and 62 RBIs.
Lochridge had a .383 average with seven homers, 13 doubles and 48 RBIs with Breaux batting .379 with seven doubles and 15 RBIs and senior outfielder Brandon Romero .354, four doubles, a homer, 16 RBIs and 10 stolen bases.
Perkins said junior Christian Leonard (.360, two HRs, 17 RBIs, 10 stolen bases) will take over in Templet’s utility position and will catch, play third base and pitch. Senior Grant Cox will play right field and pitch.
“Power wise we may be just as strong,” said Perkins, whose team hit .370, hit 29 homers and stole 61 bases. “I see it as some of these guys played behind someone last year. Now they’ll be given their opportunity to step in and hopefully show some things and may be do better than some of the kids last year.”
First-team all-state selections in seniors Sam Houston and Wyatt Marks, who combined for 17 wins, formed one of the state’s top 1-2 threats and will hand over the role of staff ace to Harris, a Perfect Game All-American.
Harris, who has topped out at 96 mph, went 3-0 with a 0.84 ERA in six appearances, striking out 31 with 11 walks. He joins a left-handed dominant staff that also includes Breaux (4-2, 1.08 ERA, 68 strikeouts), Cox (1-1, 4.12) and sophomores Ethan Hines and Tyler Hays.
Romero (2-1, 3.11) and Westminster Christian transfer Mason Tucker give the Cougars solid right-handed pitching.
“I don’t know so much player for player at each position if we’re any better than most decent high school programs,” Perkins said. “But on the mound, when you start throwing lefty after lefty and they all throw in the mid-80s to 90s and can throw strikes; that’s what has the attention on us. I think our pitching depth is pretty deep and I think that has a lot to do with it.”