By Denise Tucker/For OzarksSportsZone.com
Expectations were high heading into the 2016 season for the Wheatland Mules, who had several starters returning from the 2014-15 squad. But those expectations fell short as the Mules ended the season with a 13-13 record and a first-round loss (6-2) to Macks Creek in the Class 1 District 8 championship.
“We had some good moments, but consistency was a factor in stretches of the season,” Wheatland coach Pat Dougherty said. “That is something we will have to build upon this season. We have seven returning starters again this year, including four seniors who have started since they were freshmen. Add in three more seniors and a junior who has tons of experience, and this could be a big year for us at Wheatland.”
A couple of key losses to the program include Austin Kennedy and Christian Kellison, both of whom started and graduated last spring.
“Kennedy had a phenomenal year for us last spring,” Dougherty said. “He was our lead-off hitter, best outfielder and one of our best pitchers. His leadership by example will be missed.”
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The left-hander hit .603 with 25 stolen bases and finished with four wins on the mound.
“Kellison didn’t have the year we expected out of him, but always brought a great attitude and approach that the younger guys learned from,” Dougherty said.
Wheatland has nine returnees Dougherty expects big things from this season.
*Devin Shields – senior – second base/pitcher – hit .370; 25 runs batted in; 16 stolen bases – sure-handed middle infielder with decent speed; one of Mules’ top pitchers, hits spots, changes speeds.
*Zac Sutt – senior – shortstop/pitcher – will hit up at the top of the lineup as he has for three years; hit .478 with 13 RBIs and went 3-1 on the mound.
*Austin Daniels – senior – infielder/pitcher – good hitter with speed; hit .423 with 22 RBIs and 28 stolen bases; can play multiple positions; could see time at catcher, third base, shortstop and pitcher.
*Hunter Jones – senior – catcher/infielder/pitcher – hit .389 with 27 RBIs and 14 SB; has been starting catcher for the last three years, but hampered this winter by a knee (MCL) injury; will most likely see more time at a corner infield position this year; one of the top returning pitchers.
*Tristen Shaddox – junior – infielder/outfielder/pitcher – hit .382 with 30 RBIs (led team) and 10 SB.
*Michael Newman – senior – infielder/outfielder/pitcher – big lefty looking for breakout season; capable of being the ace and being a huge bat in the lineup.
*Bailey Jones – senior – outfielder/pitcher – Mules’ best returning outfielder, but can also fill in in the infield; good speed on the base paths; could work into pitching rotation.
*Cole Claunch – senior – infielder/outfielder – has pop at the plate, needs to be more consistent; a knuckle-baller could see duties increase with new pitch count rules.
*Javy Mendoza – junior – designated hitter/outfielder – came on strong late last season as DH; hits the ball hard.
The Mules will be looking to the following newcomers to contribute this season: Dylan Baker (junior, outfielder/catcher), Gregory Brashears (sophomore, outfielder), Jacob Paul (sophomore, outfielder), Tristan Newbold (sophomore, outfielder) and Austin Barnes (freshman, outfielder/infielder/pitcher)
Wheatland hit .340 as a team, but struggled with strikeouts and errors in the field, and had a 3.57 team ERA.
“We need to shore a few of those up, if we are going to step up into one of the elite teams in the area,” Dougherty said. “We will definitely need our ‘A’ game to compete with the likes of Walnut Grove, Hermitage, Halfway and Humansville, and others in the Polk County League, as well as St. Elizabeth, Macks Creek and Hermitage in District 9 play.”
Dougherty says the Mules’ pitching depth will be the team’s strength. And, offensively, they should be able to score some runs, which will come from the big bats and a combination of small ball.
But among the obstacles the Mules must overcome in order to be successful is “culture.”
“Belief, trust, etc., are nice key words and concepts, but it’s hard to reach great success until your kids buy in and give all for each other,” Dougherty said. “Hopefully, we can get there and this could be a special season.”
Wheatland kicks off the season March 13 with a jamboree at Buffalo, with Pleasant Hope, and opens the season on March 18 with a doubleheader against Hermitage and Wheatland.
“We, obviously, would like to battle for conference and district championships, but we need to develop more consistency in our play, and our mental toughness, to do so,” Dougherty said. “While we have some guys who can play, we need to have that swagger and approach that we belong in every game. That has been lacking the past few years.
“We haven’t won the Polk County League since 2010 (co-champs), and it’s been even longer searching for a district title (1992). Those may be lofty goals, but are achievable, if we excel.”