Jimmie Lewis has been in this position before.
When Lewis became Harlem High School's head baseball coach in 1979, he inherited the defending Class AA state champions, but he also was taking over a team which had lost every starter - and its entire pitching staff - to graduation.
This season Lewis will be leading another Harlem squad decimated by graduation - the 2002 Bulldogs are minus nine seniors from last year, including every starting pitcher and seven first-string position players.
"This is the youngest team I've ever had," Lewis said last week as the Dogs prepared for the season opener against Aquinas, which is Monday at 5 p.m. in Harlem.
"We haven't played Aquinas in a long time, probably since the mid '80s," Lewis said. "Everyone wants to play me this year; they want to jump on a wounded duck."
Lewis continued, "We have no seniors; 10 freshmen; 10 sophomores; six or seven juniors; we're just super young."
The 49-year-old veteran has had only one other team this inexperienced, and he doesn't mind reflecting on that season of 1979.
"We started with a 6-7 record, and things looked rough," he recalled. "Then we beat Evans 5-4, went on a 28-game winning streak and won the state title. So there's always hope."
Harlem finished with a 24-5 record last season and captured the Region 3-AAA title, but the much-heralded squad made an early exit from the state playoffs after a second-round sweep by LaGrange.
Outfielder Kelvin Sturgis and infielder Matt Dobbs are the only returning Dogs to receive significant playing time last year.
Harlem's pitching corps includes Donny DeMore, Jordan Whitaker, Clayton Bruce, Ray Fulcher, Chris Gamblin and Brad Lane. Lewis plans to use a pitch count to help preserve the young pups' arms.
Although the talent is untested at the high school varsity level, it's there to be tapped: the Harlem junior varsity baseball team posted a 10-6 record last season, and many of those players have moved up to varsity in 2002.
Also, the Harlem Middle School squad posted a 12-5 record on the diamond in 2001, the best mark among Columbia County's six middle schools. The nucleus of that Harlem Middle team is now in the prep ranks.
So while Harlem should be very good next year, and may be nearly unbeatable in two years, Lewis admits his players will experience some learning pains on the way up.
"We'll make our share of throwing errors, we'll be jittery, there will be dumb mistakes," Lewis said. "That won't bother me, as long as we get those things out of the way before the region schedule starts. The region games are what matters. Our immediate goal is to get a state playoff berth; we're going to bust our tails to keep the tradition going. I may be singing the blues, but I'm not believing them."
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