By Denise Tucker/For OzarksSportsZone.com
Walnut Grove has a new coaching staff, but one with plenty of baseball knowledge and experience to keep the Tigers on track.
Not only is Andrew Stepp in high first year at Walnut Grove High School, he is also in his first year of coaching high school baseball. Stepp played baseball at Western Kentucky University and later served as a student-assistant.
Stepp’s assistant is a familiar name to fans in the Ozarks – former Kickapoo baseball and basketball standout, Ryan Rippee. Rippee also played Division I baseball, and did so at Southeast Missouri State University.
The Tigers are coming off a 20-6 season, falling 2-1 in extra innings in the Class 1 District 7 championship to eventual state runner-up New Covenant Academy. The program’s last district championship came in 2008 and its last sectional title in 1988.
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“Our baseball program has not gotten to the heights we want to reach in its long tenure,” Stepp said. “The players and community are determined to use the success of last season as a nudge to get over the hump of winning a district championship and continuing deep into playoff baseball.”
Key departures to graduation include: Kolton Buckner, an all-state honorable mention pick at first base, whose leadership and power in the middle of the lineup will be missed; Dallas Meinders, an outfielder, who is playing basketball at Grandview University; and Dakota Morlen, an outfielder and pitcher.
Since Walnut Grove doesn’t have football in the fall, the coaches were able to get a sneak peek at what the Tigers will bring to the table this spring.
- Logan Thomazin is a junior first team All-Polk County League and all-district selection and all-state infielder.
- “Logan is an extremely good athlete with a great amount of potential on the baseball field,” Stepp said. “He will be a powerful force at the top of our pitching rotation with an elite competitive drive on the mound. His bat will also do a lot of damage for our aggressive style of offense.”
- Hayden Jeffryes – senior – first-team All-PCL and all-district; all-state pitcher. “Hayden will be a huge factor of this team’s success both on the mound and in the middle of our lineup,” Stepp said. “He leads by example for our younger players and has a deep passion for the game of baseball, which shows by his play.”
- Jaron Dishman – senior – first-team All-PCL and all-district. “Jaron is the type of vocal leader this team needs. He not only contributes with his leadership, but also with a strong arm on the mound and a left-handed bat in the heart of our order.”
- Hunter Gilkey – junior – first-team All-PCL and all-district. “What is great about Hunter is his motor never stops. He will be a threat at the top of our lineup with some pop in his bat and the ability to steal a lot of bags. He is the table-setter for our offense. As he goes, we all go.”
- Kyle Keith – senior – “Kyle has extremely high character. He will be looked to for veteran leadership, strong defensive play in the infield and a weapon on the mound.”
- Ryan Keith – sophomore – “Ryan has the ability to play solid defense for us in the infield and outfield. His speed will be utilized on the base paths in a big way.”
Stepp has several newcomers he will be looking to make an impact this season: sophomores Jon Smith (P) and Dawson Meinders (OF), along with junior Hesston Shuler (UTIL).
Stepp sees the Tigers’ strength being on the offensive side of things.
“Offensively, we can put up runs with our aggressive style of play,” Stepp said. “We like to play fast in every facet of this game and our offense is indicative of that. With our fast, up-tempo practices, we will try to bring a supreme amount of energy into the games and play with relentless aggression.”
Walnut Grove will participate in the Stockton jamboree on March 14, and open the season against Reeds Spring on March 20 in the Clever Tournament.
Being tough in all aspects of the game will be the key for the Tigers this season, Stepp says.
“If we can control our toughness, both mentally and physically, then we will have a great season,” Stepp said. “If we can be tougher than our opponent every day, including practices, weights, academics, we will have a chance to take this baseball program to places they have never reached before.”