After graduation gutted the Marion C. Early roster in 2014, the youthful Panthers learned on the fly last season, struggling with consistency and inexperience in an up-and-down season.
The result was a 9-12 record, which included a district semifinal loss to Rich Hill. The good news, though, is that last year’s youthful team is a year older and ready to post a winning record this spring.
“We had a very productive year for a very young team,” said head coach Justin Crumpley, now in his fifth year as the Panthers’ coach. “We had graduated a large senior class the year before and had a lot of underclassman taking on varsity roles. As with most young teams we had a roller coaster season with several ups and downs.
"We are really excited for this upcoming season. We have a lot of returning starters with another year of experience and work under their belt, and we are looking forward to building off of the foundation that we laid out last season.”
The Panthers did lose three more players to graduation after last season, including a first team all-district designated hitter in Zach Kuder. Also gone are centerfielder Scott Franck and second baseman Alen Opris.
“We will have to find good quality defenders to replace the positions that they left vacant,” said Crumpley. “They were strong leaders and we will need some young players to step up into those leadership positions.”
Although the Panthers return several key players, a quartet of athletes figure to lead the way for Morrisville. That list includes senior third baseman and pitcher Nick Beavers, who earned first team all-district honors last season.
Brandon Bell, a senior outfielder, and junior shortstop Gavin Lombas also return, and both will make key contributions on the mound for the Panthers. Sophomore Dominic Canovi had a standout freshman season that saw the centerfielder/pitcher earn first team all-district honors.
“The key to our success will be our pitching,” said Crumpley. “We have all of our varsity pitching returning from last year and we need them to set the tone for us all season. Pitching and solid returning defense should be our biggest strengths.
"We need to have some hitters step up and help us produce more offense this spring. We need to develop more of a consistent offensive approach. We want to get better each and every time we step on the field, and be the best team we can possibly be by the time districts arrive.”
The Panthers will once again battle it out in Class 2 District 13 against the likes of Jasper, Liberal, Rich Hill, Osceola, and Miller. The Cardinals will look to defend their district crown from a year ago.
“I think that it is a very open district, and there will be multiple teams that will be capable of winning the title,” said Crumpley.
Although the Panthers do not compete in a conference, the schedule is loaded with games against some of the area’s top teams. Morrisville opened the season this week by winning 10-9 at Ash Grove on Monday then 12-5 at Central on Tuesday.
The Panthers will host Miller in the home opener on March. 28 in a game that will have important district implications later this spring.
Other key games on the schedule include trips to Class 3 No. 3-ranked Stockton (Apr. 18) and Class 1 No. 3-ranked Walnut Grove (Apr. 21), as well as games against three teams that are receiving votes in the state polls in Norwood (Apr. 12), Clever (Apr. 15) and Marionville (May 3). The game against Polk County rival Pleasant Hope is slated for Apr. 25.