Optimism abounds on baseball diamonds across the Coast. Teams worked out the kinks last weekend in four-inning jamboree action, but meaningful pitches begin flying this weekend with classic games.
Most of South Mississippi's coaches are cautiously optimistic. Last year, St. Stanislaus broke through to win the Coast's first state championship since Pascagoula won it all in 2012.
Who will be the next program to step up? Will SSC repeat? Can George County finish what it started last year? Or will another program step up?
We'll start to get answers this weekend.
Moving on up
In some ways, No. 1 George County can benefit from jumping up from Class 5A to 6A by avoiding a rematch with North juggernaut Oxford -- a team Davis called the best he's ever seen at the high school level. The Rebels will still have to maneuver through a deep 6A on the Coast to make another playoff run.
"(6A schools) are probably one more pitcher deep and two more hitters deep," Davis said. "In 5A, when you get through the five-hole, you're doing pretty good. In 6A, the six- or seven-hole guy might beat you."
To prepare his squad for a region that features St. Martin, D'Iberville and Ocean Springs, Davis built his non-region schedule around teams like Pascagoula, Clinton and Madison Central.
"I knew we were going to have to determine some things early in the season," he said. "I'm not concerned about the record. Some coaches worry about winning 20 games. Obviously wins keep your job, but high school baseball players don't know how many games they win, the play to go deep into the playoffs. That's all that matters."
Plenty will be made about Mississippi State signee Walker Robbins -- and rightfully so. The 6-foot-3 left-hander throws in the low 90s and is always a threat to go yard. The Rebels have other players Davis is excited about, like outfielders Bryson Solomon and Connor Dunlap, to name a few.
New shortstop Bryson Scott will be an important addition up the middle for GCHS.
"He has worked really hard," Davis said. "He's a very athletic kid."
Coach Pat Olmi said he likes the composition of his No. 2 Harrison Central Red Rebels.
"We just hope to stay injury free and go out and play the way I think these kids are capable of playing," he said. "We're not going to be a power hitting team. Pitching and defense will have to carry us."
On the mound, Olmi pointed to sophomore Brendan Hardy and juniors Logan Virgilio and Jordan Harris as leading his rotation. Virgilio posted a 0.74 ERA and a 3-1 record in 19 innings last season and Harris boasted a 2.04 ERA and 2-0 record in 24 innings. Hardy only pitched one inning as a freshman.
Senior shortstop Ian Colon will be the glue for Olmi's defense. Last season he hit .313 and stole nine bases, but his glove is what stands out.
"We'd like for every ball to be hit to Ian. If that happens we have a chance," Olmi joked. "He makes plays in practice that are just unbelievable."
Offensively, the Red Rebels will turn to sophomore Dillon Morgan. All he did as a freshman was hit .352 with 10 doubles. This year, he'll man one of the corner infield spots and hit in the middle of the order.
"He can swing it pretty good," Olmi said. "He's steadily learning. Once he learns what he needs to, the sky is the limit for him."
Good mix at GHS
Gulfport coach Jamie McMahon said he was encouraged by the way his Admirals, who were tied at No. 3 with Ocean Springs in the Sun Herald's preseason rankings, performed during last week's jamboree action.
"I like 'em so far. Practice wise, we have a good little nucleus of older guys and younger guys," he said. "We have a good mix of returning guys at key positions and some younger who are going to have to step up at certain positions."
The Admirals have plenty of experience on the mound with an all-senior rotation of Southern Miss signee Alex Nelms, Gage Clark and Travis McNett.
"With three seniors to carry the load, I feel good about that," McMahon said.
Nelms, who will also bat in the middle of the lineup and play third base when he's not pitching, had a 1.98 ERA and a team-high 56 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings in 2015. McNett boasted a 2.21 ERA in 12 2/3 innings, while Clark had a 7.74 ERA in 12 2/3.
McMahon said the strength of the team will be up the middle with Kevin Carter at shortstop and Dillon Brown in center field.
"We have some depth that we haven't had in the past," McMahon said, adding he feels the Admirals are two-deep around the infield. "We have shortstops all over the field."
In his second year with Ocean Springs, coach Brian Rea believes his team can be a true contender.
"We've got a good group. We think we have the kind of group that's going to push for South 6A for sure," he said. "We have a lot of guys who saw a lot of time last year and a good group of underclassmen who will mesh.
"I couldn't be more optimistic."
Senior right-hander Drew Windham is one of those returners who will shoulder the load as ace and lead Greyhound.
As a junior, Windham posted a 1.76 ERA in 59 2/3 innings. Rea thinks he could take a step forward this year.
"He's 'Cool Hand Luke,'" Rea said. "He doesn't get rattled. He's 6-3, a specimen from the waist down and throws downhill. Our kids naturally play better behind him. He's that No. 1 horse we all love to have."
Commanding the pitching staff will be senior Tate Pepper, back for his third year as starter.
While he hit .296 last year, Rea said Pepper's real value is how he handles a pitching staff.
"He can shut a run game down," Rea said. "He does what you want a catcher to do. He blocks, he receives and he throws -- and does all those quite well.
"He's a good one. I'm glad he's on my team."
A common theme with all of the Coast's top teams is reliable play at shortstop. Rea believes he has one of the better ones in junior Cooper Brune, who will also be the No. 2 pitcher.
"He's as good as anybody around at that position," Rea said. "His hands and feet for a middle infielder are ideal. His lateral movement, he covers from the six-hole to well behind the bag if he has to. He makes the electric plays and the routine ones with a quick release."