By Kary Booher
With the way Willard High School baseball coach Scott McGee talks about this season – with a goals of at least reaching a state semifinal – it’s easy to see how his Tigers buy in.
Calmly, McGee made his case this past winter: Despite losing six of their seven top hitters and top three pitchers, look at what the Tigers do have returning — four pitchers, a speedy lineup, a quality catcher and rangy outfielders. Well, that and chemistry.
“We think we can get back to the Final Four,” McGee said. “It’s been three years since we’ve made it.”
Last season, particularly the postseason, offers both incentive and a blueprint.
The Tigers were 22-10 last season, when they won their fourth district championship in eight years but then suffered a 5-2 loss to Jefferson City in the sectionals.
To get there, Willard’s four-run sixth inning in the district championship propelled the Tigers to a 5-4 win against Hillcrest. Willard had pitching and defense after falling behind early.
This year, Willard’s pitching staff could be a strength. Matthew Eleiott, a junior, was the team’s best pitcher last summer after he finished 4-2 with a 1.76 earned run average in 36 high school innings. That included 25 strikeouts, 14 walks and 25 hits.
The other pitchers are seniors Ben Fugitt (Truman State commit) and Caleb Lasher and junior Tanner Norris. Those three combined for 34 innings last year. Norris and Fugitt’s fastballs have buzzed in at 90 mph this winter. Lasher, a lefty, can mix and match with fastballs, curveballs and changeups.
To McGee, having four quality pitchers could make a difference in the postseason. And he should know. Now about to enter his 10th season, he is 170-95 at Willard, which placed third in 2013 in Class 5 and fourth in 2012 in Class 4.
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t pitch well against anybody,” McGee said. “When you get to the postseason tournament, I think that’ll get you (far).”
Other parts of the defense also could be a key for Willard. Dakota Campbell is back at catcher, and the outfield features senior center fielder Ben Morris (Meramec Community College commit), senior left fielder Austin Russell and Norris in right field.
“Dakota Campbell is one of the best catchers in the conference,” McGee said. “He’s athletic. He has pop times of 1.9 (seconds to second base). I think he’s got a skill level, combined with athleticism, that’s good for us.”
Speed also could be better this year for Willard.
“Offensively, I think people are sleeping on us,” McGee said. “The depth of our lineup with allow us to do a little bit of everything.”
The projected lineup calls for Russell at leadoff, followed by third baseman Connor Poulson, Morris, Norris, freshman first baseman Garrett Rice, Campbell, designated hitter Cory Watson, a trio of candidates at shortstop and senior second baseman Brady Owen, a North Central commit.
Morris hit .298 with seven doubles and 13 stolen bases last year, when Poulson hit .273 in 22 at-bats. Campbell hit .265 with nine stolen bases. The shortstop possibilities are Cameron Pope, a junior, and sophomores Noah Woolridge and Jacob Van Doren.
Look for junior outfielder Blake Moore and junior Evan Dock to have roles as well.
Offseason workouts have gone well, with seniors leading the way.
“The chemistry is going to be a huge advantage for us,” McGee said. “When you’ve got a couple of guys doing everything they can to get better, other guys are trying to keep up with them.”