If nothing else, you have to appreciate the mindset.
Lower expectations? Please. Not for the Strafford Indians baseball program this spring.
As seventh-year coach Shane Pierce put it, “They’re winners. They won in football. They won in basketball. The tradition at Strafford over the last 10 years has developed.” And then he added this: “They believe they’re going to win.”
That’s the one comforting thought for Pierce as the sun rises on the 2016 season, which presents its share of challenges for the longtime Mid-Lakes Conference contenders. The Indians finished 18-7 a year ago but graduated six seniors, including five starters – three who were all-conference.
Now, the roster still features talent, such as Valparaiso University signee and big-time hitter Blake Lutgen. But unlike other coaches who in mid-March can live comfortably knowing their lineup is all but set, Pierce spent spring break still evaluating closely.
“Pitching is a big question,” Pierce said. “We’ve got some young guys but not a lot of guys with varsity experience.”
A case in point is projected No. 1 starter Drew Stoll. He’s a sophomore who pitched all of 16 varsity innings last year in the shadow of then-seniors Kyle Foley, Jake Berry, Luke Oliver and Dalton Peterson.
Foley was 6-1 with a 2.03 earned run average, while Berry fired the Indians through traffic with a 1.34 ERA before signing with Missouri S&T.
“(Stoll) does a good job of competing on the mound,” Pierce said. “As a sophomore, he’s 79-80 mph. We’re just hoping he’s going to get bigger and stronger. We like to say that, with every movement on a fastball, it’s an extra mile per hour, so any run on his fastball helps him a lot.”
Pierce is shifting Wyatt Eubanks and Conner Anderson into pitching duty, too. Keep an eye on a freshman, Tony Caldwell as well.
Hopefully for Strafford, runs won’t be at a premium.
Lutgen certainly gives the Indians a feared hitter in the lineup. He hit .427 last year with two home runs, nine doubles, three triples and 33 RBI. He also played last summer and in the fall with the Midwest Nationals, a premier travel ball club, and cracked a home run in a spring training facility last fall in Arizona.
“He’s maybe the best pure hitter I’ve ever had,” Pierce said. “He’s capable of leaving the yard at any time. And he’s just an outstanding young man.”
Look for Eubanks, a speedster, atop the order, followed by Elijah Perkins, Lutgen and then possibly right fielder Brady Wilson, corner informer Anderson, catcher Chanler Collins, infielder Caldwell or infielder Zach Hess, outfielder Andrew Woodring, Stoll and Austin Tipton.
“We’re going to hit. There’s no doubt,” Pierce said. “I hate playing 8-7 games but that maybe who we are this year.”
Collins could be a so-called “glue guy” that bonds the team together, especially the pitching staff. He is, as you know, the varsity quarterback and a standout basketball player. This will be his fourth year starting behind the plate and has shown continued arm strength.
“We’re hoping he matures as a catcher with his ability to communicate with pitchers,” Pierce said.
As for the schedule, it will be a challenge in the Mid-Lakes and again in districts, where a year ago Conway eliminated Strafford.
“I’d like to think we can compete with the best of them,” Pierce said “We’ll have to see what happens. The only thing we’ve talked about is just playing the game the right way.”
Coach: Shane Pierce (19th year overall; 137-68 in Strafford baseball in 7 seasons)
Last year: 18-7
Pitching staff: Drew Stoll (2-0, 1.31), Wyatt Eubanks, Conner Anderson, Tony Caldwell
Projected lineup: CF Wyatt Eubanks, 2B/3B Elijah Perkins, Blake Lutgen, RF Brady Wilson, 1B/3B Conner Anderson, C Chanler Collins, INF Tony Caldwell, INF Zach Hess or OF Andrew Woodring, Drew Stoll, OF Austin Tipton.
Remaining roster: Michael Wollweber, James Oddo, Dylan Hester, Dalton Hill, Wyatt Maples, Hunger Langston, Garrett Lumley, Shelton Zimmerman, Tristan Rozell, Trevor Tipton, Caleb Semple.
March: 21-26 – at Clever ROTB Classic, 28 – at Skyline, 30 – at Springfield Catholic, 31 – vs. Mountain Grove
April: 4 – vs. Bolivar, 5 – vs. Ash Grove, 8 – at Pleasant Hope, 12 – vs. Stockton, 14 – vs. Hartville, 15 – at Marshfield, 18-23 – at Southwest Missouri Wood Bat Classic, 26 – at Marionville, 28 – vs. Fair Grove, 29 – at Hollister
May: 2 – at Buffalo, 3 – at Conway, 9-14 – at Forsyth Tournament