By Maurice Patton
FRANKLIN – This isn’t how it was supposed to go.
As Mark Pickle led Columbia Central’s baseball program into their 24th season together, needing four victories to reach 500 for his coaching career, that quest was supposed to have long been addressed by the final days of April.
“I’ve never been through a season like this. It’s a totally new experience for me,” Pickle said after the Lions fell 11-1 in five innings Friday at Centennial – dropping to 3-20 on the year and coming up short on their sixth attempt to earn the milestone accomplishment since an April 13 win over District 8-AAA foe Shelbyville.
“The kids and I talk about it all the time. I don’t have the answers to this because I’ve never experienced it before. If I could say we had a season like this in whatever year and here’s what we did to correct it, I would, but I’ve never been through it. I tell ‘em every day, ‘I don’t have the answers; if I did, I’d tell ‘em to you and we’d get it corrected and move on’.
“I’m still searching, too.”
In Central’s last full season, coming off a district tournament championship in 2018, the team finished 19-12. Last year, with four college signees on the roster – Caden Cameron (Columbia State), Dane Sykes (Charleston, W.Va.), Jaden Hamm and Bryce Symlar (Middle Tennessee State) – the Lions started 2-1 before the coronavirus pandemic brought an end to spring sports competition.
This time, with freshmen and sophomores (15) outnumbering juniors and seniors (eight), continuity has been a concern.
“We’ve had a bunch of starting lineups throughout the year,” Pickle said. “We’ve tried multiple lineups, multiple kids, multiple positions for some of the kids. We just haven’t found that right combination yet.
“I’ve told the kids they haven’t made it easy on me. If you’ve got a kid hitting .400, it’s pretty easy to pencil him into the lineup every day. We don’t have that. If we’ve got two kids at one position, they’ve played pretty much equal; no guy’s won this job or that job. We’ve had a revolving door at about every position on the field all year long. We haven’t had guys step up and win jobs.”
Against Centennial – which had won just four of 19 games itself — Central allowed nine runs in the first two innings and committed six errors, with sophomore starting pitcher Drew Sharp and freshman reliever Bryson Jones combining to issue four walks and throw six wild pitches.
The visitors scored their only run as Hudson Adams led off the third with a single, advanced on a Gage Bolton double and scored on Konner Bowden’s groundout. One of four freshmen in Friday’s starting lineup, Bowden had the Lions’ only other base hit, a one-out single in the first.
“Some days we’ve had a couple of freshmen on the field, sometimes, three or four, sometimes even five,” Pickle said. “We’ve tried all sorts of different combinations. Unfortunately we haven’t had enough guys step up and earn those roles to solidify anything.
“It usually takes me about two or three weeks into the season, 12 to 15 games, to find out who needs to be where. From that point forward, we roll with that lineup the last four or five weeks and try to get as good as we can heading into the tournament. But here we are, 20-something games into the season, two weeks away from the tournament, and I don’t know what my best lineup is.”
Pickle stressed that the lack of success hasn’t been from a lack of effort.
“Everybody wants to perform, everybody wants to win,” he said. “In a lot of cases we haven’t done so, individually or as a team, this year. It’s tough seeing that frustration on their faces. But to their credit, they’ve continued to work hard every day and do the things they’ve got to do to try to get better, and that’s what we’re going to plow through and do the next two or three weeks, however long we’ve got left.”
That improvement has been Pickle’s focus – not the pursuit of his coaching accomplishments.
“It’s never been a consideration of mine. It means nothing to me,” he said of the watershed victory yet to come. “It might in 20 years when I’m old and retired and sitting around talking to other old and retired people; it may mean something then. But right now it doesn’t mean anything.
“What’s most important is that we’ve got two weeks left to get ready for the tournament. That’s the way we’re going to approach it, win, lose or draw.”
Centennial 11, Columbia Central 1 (5 inn.)
Col 001 00 – 1 3 6
Cen 540 2x – 11 9 0
Drew Sharp, Bryson Jones (3) and Gage Bolton. Nolan Wells, Gavin Johnson (3) and Jason Bennett. W: Wells. L: Sharp.