Off-season work paid dividends for Sikeston's J.R. Bizzell
For Sikeston senior J.R. Bizzell, defense has always been the strongest part of his game for the Bulldog baseball team.
But this year, he turned himself into arguably the best hitter in Southeast Missouri while routinely turning in dazzling plays at shortstop.
That combination makes Bizzell the 2005 Standard Democrat Player of the Year.
His offensive numbers are impressive. He batted .490, knocking out 51 hits, which by the way, ties his cousin Blake DeWitt for the school record for most hits in a single season.
Of his 51 hits, 39 were singles, which ties the Missouri single-season state record according to the 2004-2005 MSHSAA Record Book. he also had five doubles, five triples and two home runs to go with his 18 RBIs and team-best 41 runs scored (third most in school history) and 11 stolen bases.
He also had an on-base percentage of .535 and a slugging percentage of .692 while carrying a 19-game hitting streak at the end of the season.
Quite a season for a guy that had a designated hitter bat for him just two years ago.
"I think back to when John Robert was a sophomore and we DH'ed for him," said Sikeston coach Kevin Self. "And even as a junior, early in the season we had a DH for him. To go from that to tying the school record in hits, yeah, he had a career year."
Add that production to his stellar defense at shortstop and it's easy to see how he was a vital cog in the Bulldog lineup.
Bizzell, who only stands 5-foot-7 and weighs 140 pounds, is much stronger than he looks.
He also possesses tremendous speed, particularly on the basepaths where it wasn't uncommon for him to take an extra base when it appeared there was no chance.
"The biggest thing is he really got a lot stronger from last year to this year," said Self. "He started to fill out and he got so fast too. He was fast before, but when he got physically stronger, he just really got quick. And with that, anything on the infield to the left side, if they hesitated or if it was in the hole, he just beat it out. I can't tell you how many infield hits he had.
"He did a lot of things well that defenses couldn't really take one thing away. If they came in to try to take away the bunt, then he'd just rip it by them. If the outfield started cheating in, then he could go over their head in the gap. He could hit the ball to all fields. This year he really came into his own."
And on top of it all, Bizzell was also the vocal team leader on a team with nine seniors.
"He was the one guy that did most of the talking in the team huddles," said Self. "He tried to help people focus and motivate us and get us in the right frame of mind. It came naturally for him. The players responded to his leadership."
His talent plus his leadership helped lead the team to a 20-6 season, including a district championship. The Bulldogs' season ended in a sectional game to North County, 5-4.
Throughout the season, many felt the Bulldogs didn't get their due. But that all changed after the team defeated Notre Dame 7-3 in the district championship game.
"I thought we played excellent the whole year," said Bizzell. "Notre Dame had already beat us in the conference championship this year and we just stuck it to them and they had no opportunity to win that district title. Nobody thought we would get over .500 this year. To get 20 wins and only six losses, that's a big accomplishment. I seriously thought we would go all the way this year, but North County had the ball fall their way that day. They had balls fall in while we hit balls right at everybody."
But even that didn't put a damper on the season. The 2005 seniors, playing behind the shadow of the Class of 2004's success, made their own mark in Sikeston baseball lore.
They became the sixth straight Bulldog team to eclipse 20 victories and they won the district championship for the fourth time in five years.
Bizzell said playing with DeWitt, Jacob Priday and other players in the past made this year's team better.
"It's not that bad to be behind somebody like Blake and Jake â€" success breads success and it becomes a habit to win," said Bizzell. "I think playing with them last year really helped our senior class step up and play at the level we played at. We're a better team because of them. I worked the whole offseason this winter with Blake and I hit the ball well this spring because of him. We worked every day with my swing and hitting off a tee. I think it paid off."
It certainly did.
Last season Bizzell batted eighth in the lineup and, after a poor start, turned it on to hit .323 with four doubles and a pair of triples.
"I just tried to do what I could do personally to better the team," said Bizzell. "Coach Self told me at the beginning of the year just to get on base and let Cullen (DeHart) and Tyler (Baker) drive me in, and that's what I tried to do."
But all of a sudden he was piling up hits at a record pace and it went largely unnoticed for most of the season.
But when he passed 40 hits with several games left, Bizzell and others saw that DeWitt's hits record was in jeopardy.
"I'm not the kind of kid that goes to break records," said Bizzell. "I just tried to get on base. If it called for me to walk, or leg out infield ground balls or bunting my way on, that's what I had to do. I just tried to hit the ball and not try to do too much, like going for a home run or the double. And things just started happening and 51 hits just showed up. I wasn't going for it, but at the end of the year I kind of noticed what was going on.
"To tie Blake is a big accomplishment for me because of the outstanding player he was. I'm not at the caliber he is. I just got 51 hits and tied his record while he did it convincingly. It's pretty cool that both cousins share the record."
Defensively, Bizzell and teammate Richard Landers formed one of the best shortstop-third base combinations in school history.
Anything hit on the ground usually meant an out for the opposing batter.
Bizzell was moved to shortstop after playing second base last year.
He made a smooth transition, especially after Landers was moved from second base back to his normal position of third.
"At the beginning of the year I made a few errors because my timing was different â€" at shortstop you have to come up and throw the ball a lot quicker than at second base," said Bizzell. "But I settled down as the year went on and didn't make as many errors. When Richard moved back over to third base, he was more at home. He's an excellent third baseman and his presence really helped me relax at short.
"When the ball was hit on the ground I thought it was a guaranteed out. We told our pitchers that if they get ground balls, then they're going to win ballgames. With our infield of Richard and me on the left side, and Jerod (Scott) and Bryce (Wibbenmeyer) at second and Cullen and Baker at first, we really had a good defense."
Self said one of the things that makes Bizzell such a good defensive player was his range.
"He could go catch the pop flies in the triangles â€"Â
he could get those little dunkin' liners and just make those catches," said Self. "But he also had the arm strength to play at short.
"He had the best arm on the team. There were times I thought about pitching him. He's in the upper echelon of shortstops we've had, there's no doubt about it. And we've had a lot of good shortstops here."
Bizzell, who was also an all-state player for the Bulldogs' district champion soccer team last fall, has had offers from colleges in both baseball and soccer.
But he has already made up his mind, and sports is not part of the plan. Bizzell said he is going Rhodes College in Memphis in the fall.
"I know I'm probably not going to make it professionally in athletics, so I'm going to concentrate on my academics," said Bizzell.
"I'm accepted to Rhodes and it was one of my top choices, so I'm excited."