By John Miller
After putting together an improbable run through the postseason last year, the Nixa Eagles are back at square one—having to prove themselves again.
Nixa went just 11-18 through its regular season last spring, including a 2-5 mark in Central Ozark Conference play, but the team caught fire at just the right time. Seeded sixth in the seven-team Class 5 District 11, Nixa shocked everybody by beating the top three seeds (Kickapoo, Ozark, Glendale) in three consecutive rounds to win the title.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Nixa shortstop Brett Hammit said of his team’s unlikely romp to the championship. “We had all the talent necessary but just needed to piece it all together.”
Hammit, who has committed to play baseball at Nebraska, leads a group of seven returners for the Eagles that look to make a splash again this season.
“I like that we are really young, but now we all have a season under our belt,” said Hammit, who hit .303 with four homers and 18 RBIs last spring during his sophomore season. “I also like our ability to win when we are not expected to.”
That will be the case this spring for the Eagles, who are one of the few teams to win a sectional game and have most of its lineup returning but not be found in the MHSBCA preseason rankings. Two of the teams Nixa beat in last year’s district championship run are getting preseason love with Ozark (ranked sixth) and Kickapoo (ninth).
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One of the unknowns for Nixa this spring will be on the mound, where its top two pitchers graduated. Luke Hauswirth, now playing collegiately at Kansas State, went 5-4 with a 1.78 ERA last spring and started the district championship game against Kickapoo. Parker Dent, playing for Three Rivers Junior College, also was key on the mound, going 5-4 with a 1.92 ERA.
“We’ll miss their commanding fastball and their leadership,” Nixa coach Howard Greenwood said.
“Our seniors last year were good role models and leaders, and the seniors we have this year are the same,” Hammit added.
That group of seniors includes returning starters C Brendon Beckley, P/1B Joe Dopp, and P/1B Corey Lummis. Junior returning starters include SS Hammit, OF Payton Hannah, OF Stephen Belcher, and OF Ryan Murphy.
“This group will give us some varsity baseball and postseason experience,” Greenwood said.
Dopp and Lummis will be crucial for the pitching staff, needing to fill the holes left by Hauswirth and Dent. Last year, Dopp went 1-2 with a 4.75 ERA while Lummis was 2-5 with a 4.81 ERA. Fellow senior OF/P Chandler Olmstead will also be counted on to contribute, after going 1-0 with a 4.30 ERA last year.
While Hammit headlines the offense for Nixa, the Eagles will also need production from the rest of the lineup. Murphy hit .325 and Hannah hit .273 as sophomores, and Greenwood expects both will continue to improve. Dopp was a .279 batter last year, while Belcher hit .233.
In addition to its returning starters, Nixa welcomes in sophomore IF/P Reece Chaisson, who should have a bigger role this spring.
“Reece gained valuable experience in 2016, Greenwood said. “He has a good chance of becoming a full-time starter in 2017.”
One thing is for sure, the experience gained from last season’s postseason run should help a young Nixa team this spring.
“Our strength is … our ability to hit and play under pressure,” Hammit said. “Because we’ve been there before and know what it’s like.”