Crawdads’ season starts tonight

The Hickory Crawdads kick off the 2011 campaign tonight against the Asheville Tourists.

After the Texas Rangers made the World Series last season, the expectations are high for their minor league affiliate in Hickory.

“The Rangers did a good job with player development,” said manager Bill Richardson, who is returning for his second season. “They flew all the coaches to the World Series games. We got to feel that fever. When it was over, we felt like we didn’t get it done in player development. John Daniels, our general manager, came into spring training and told us to make sure we didn’t feel that way. He has challenged our younger guys to step up a level.”

Among the many new faces are two first-round draft choices by the Texas Rangers. Jacob Skole, the 15th overall selection, is a center fielder out of Blessed Trinity Catholic School.

“It feels good to be the first pick of the American League champions,” Skole said. “It is a pretty cool feeling. They are doing great things. We are trying to keep up with them in the lower levels of the minor leagues. I like the talent we have. We are a little young, but I like that. We are going to get after it.”

Joining him will be catcher Kellin Deglan, a native Canadian. He was the 22nd overall pick in the MLB draft by Texas.

“The stadium looks nice,” Deglan said. “I am looking forward to Thursday seeing a full crowd out, and getting on the field this season. I am just going to go up to the plate and try to beat the pitcher every at-bat. I don’t want to be an easy out. I will just be battling every pitch. Behind the plate as a catcher, I want to be consistent all year, control the running game and control the pitching staff.”

The Crawdads finished second in the Northern Division with a 75-64 record in 2010. They were nine games behind division winner Lakewood. The Blue Claws defeated the Crawdads in a best of three game series in the Northern Division Championship Series.

Richardson has even higher expectations for his club in the 2011 season.

“We plan on making it back to the playoffs,” Richardson said. “This is a totally different team. We don’t have one guy on this team who competed here for a full season. Some guys are carryovers and came over halfway through the season. This is young team with a lot of young prospects in both pitching and defense.”

One of the more veteran positions will be the Crawdads’ pitching staff. Five of the seven players that competed for the team last season are pitchers, including Andrew Doyle, Carlos Melo, Matt Thompson, Braden Tullis and Joseph Van Meter. All five pitchers are right-handers.

“We have good pitchers this year,” said Thompson, who won nine games last season. “They are all older. There are a lot of college guys and also guys that have been around the system. I think we are going to have a good pitching staff.”

Richardson has been surprised with one aspect of his young club.

“The way they go about their business for being such young players,” Richardson said. “The Rangers have challenged them and want the young kids to have a full season. I think they are up to the challenge, but only time will tell. So far, it has been good.”