By John Miller
With six starters and nine lettermen returning from last year’s Central Ozark Conference champion Ozark Tigers team, its safe to say the bar is high for the 2017 season.
But for Ozark, that’s nothing new.
Last year, the Tigers finished 18-11, including an 8-0 trek through the COC, claiming its second straight conference title. Unfortunately, the season ended prematurely with a 1-0 district semifinal loss to eventual district champ Nixa.
“Last year’s team was a lot of fun to coach,” said Ozark coach Mike Essick, who has an overall record of 411-192 in 25 years at Ozark. “They were a tight-knit unit that played well together and were a pleasure to be around.”
Ozark graduated several impact players from last year—three of which are playing collegiate baseball. Clayton Engel, the Co-Player of the Year in the COC is now playing at Drury, while all-conference selections Cole Smith and Tanner Wallace are playing at Arkansas Tech and College of the Ozarks, respectively. Andrew Fedje is also gone after going 5-0 on the mound last year.
Returning for the Tigers is a group of 12 upperclassmen, including five seniors: C Noah Tucker, OF Noah Suiter, OF Zach Ford, P Zach Flood, and P Brian Wacha.
Tucker, a four-year starter, was a unanimous first-team all-conference pick last year after batting .365 with six doubles and 16 RBIS. Suiter hit .297 with 12 driven in and stole three bases. Ford hit .286 and should be counted on for solid offensive and defensive production this spring.
On the mound, Flood and Wacha both return and Essick is looking for solid seasons from both. Flood posted a 3.23 ERA last spring.
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Also returning are juniors P/IF Cade Little, IF/C Chuck Hill, IF/OF Curt Gracey, P/IF Forrest Barnes, P/IF Joe Satterly, IF Preston Sundlie, and P/OF Parker Hanks.
Barnes, a first-team all-conference pitcher last year, will be counted on to anchor the pitching staff. He went 5-4 with a 2.14 ERA last spring. Hanks was a second-team all-conference pitcher last year after going 3-2 with a 2.60 ERA. The left-hander also hit .307 at the dish with 27 hits and 14 stolen bases.
Little will be the team’s first baseman and should give the team some versatility as a left-handed batter. Hill is in competition for the catching and third base jobs. He hit .467 last year with 14 total hits. Gracey batted .278 last spring with 11 RBIs and 12 stolen bases and should be a threat on the bases again this year. Satterly has potential to be a good power hitter this spring, while Sundlie is a versatile middle-infielder who could contribute daily this spring.
“We have a hard-working bunch who will be asked to fill some significant holes left by seniors,” Essick said. “We have a competitive schedule, and these athletes will understand that it will be vitally important for us to improve over the course of the season if we want to be competitive in the districts and beyond.”