By Amanda Perkins/For OzarksSportsZone.com
Fordland’s 2016 spring baseball season ended with a district semifinals loss to Marionville, but coach Garret Keith and the Eagles were still very proud of their 19-win campaign.
“Last year was a great season for Fordland,” he said. “It would be a great season for any team. Winning 19 games – I don’t care what level you are playing – is a great achievement.”
The Eagles graduated three key players, but are confident in their returning starters who contributed to the 19-10 season and their eleven-win fall campaign. In his eighth year of coaching at Fordland, Keith expects to lead his team to the top of the Summit conference and into the postseason.
Keith said the Summit conference was as difficult as anticipated this fall, with every game decided by five runs or less. “This shows the strength of our conference top to bottom,” he said.
Last spring, Fordland’s conference losses were to Conway and Mansfield, and both teams went on to win their districts.
“As a team, we didn’t score a ton of runs, but relied on great pitching and solid defense all year long,” said Keith.
Graduate Blake Hyder’s stat line from his senior season is impressive: 1.40 ERA, .405 average, 32 hits, 23 RBIs. He was named to the all-conference and all-district first teams (utility) and was a team leader. “Hyder gave us a chance to win every game,” said Keith. “Our team knew that every time he was pitching, we had a chance to win, regardless of class, state ranking, or what the other team had done in the past.”
Kyle Gann was a first team all-conference and all-district outfielder who also racked up 32 hits, 21 RBIs, and a .352 average last spring. Damaging on the basepaths and in the outfield, he was an asset for the Eagles. Tyler Letterman played at second his senior year and, according to his coach, did everything right. He led the team in homeruns and had 19 RBIs.
The Eagles will need their experienced players to fill the void left by the three graduates. They will first look to senior Michael Hart, a reliable pitcher who displayed a 1.35 ERA last spring. In the fall, he raised his batting average to .306. The shortstop is a skilled defender with a high baseball IQ and leadership skills who earned all-district second team and all-conference honorable mention honors.
Ethan Grandel was another starter last year who lowered his ERA in the fall to 1.86 while also raising his average to .270. “Ethan’s last two years on the mound have been nothing but excellent,” said his coach. The senior’s consistency was vital to Fordland’s success. Grandel suffered an injury in the conference tournament, but plans to pick up where he left off, which was with a 5-0 make on the mound. When not pitching, he plays first base.
Noah Sparks is an athletic senior who will start in centerfield for his second year. His improvement at the plate (.329) makes him one of the top hitters for the team. He will also join in pitching (2.63 ERA). Classmate Cole Watson is known for his speed. “He is just quick,” said Keith about Watson. “On the bases he is smart, in the outfield he is able to track down a lot of balls that are would-be hits and gives us the spark we need.” He batted .273 in the fall and is expected to improve that average.
The junior class includes Corey Sampaio, a catcher who raised his average from .317 in the spring to .446 in the fall with 29 hits. He received an all-conference honorable mention for his efforts.
“He is a hard-working kid who will catch 98% of our innings for us and it doesn’t effect his time at the plate,” said Keith.
Fellow junior Skyler Grandel is a lefty with a presence on the mound and a 2.65 ERA. He has the ability to get on base and raised his average in the fall to .338.
Tyler and Jared Cass round out the junior class, covering third base and right field, respectively. Tyler played every game at third in the fall after transferring from second, and provides solid defense and speed on the basepaths. Twin brother Jared is also speedy on the basepaths, and will play corner outfield.
Sophomore infielder and pitcher Brett Hyder played shortstop in the fall when Hart was on the mound and also played some innings in the outfield. Hyder is athletic and looks to break out of the shadow of his older brother, graduate Blake Hyder. “He had a few outings the last couple of years that show he has a high ceiling on the mound,” said Coach Keith.
Joe Hart, brother of senior Michael Hart, has a high baseball IQ like his sibling and is a versatile player. The freshman played at second this fall and is expected to assist at the varsity level. Jace Uchtman and Phillip Ivanov are freshmen who should also see varsity time.
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Keith said with new pitching limitations, he and assistant coach Sam Waterman are anticipating the associated challenges, and younger players are expected to step up. “The chess match that Coach Waterman and I will go through this spring with the pitch counts brings a whole new excitement to the season,” said Keith. “Waterman has worked with our pitchers ever since he got to Fordland from Branson last year and we have benefited from his knowledge and ability to work with those kids greatly.”
The team’s conference play may also be a good feeler for how they will perform at district time, as the bulk of their conference schools are also in their district.
“Most of these kids got a chance to experience the success we had last year, and I hope to just build on that,” said Keith. “As a coach, you speculate a lot of things from either what we have coming back or what we did this fall, but the bottom line: you have to find a way to win.”
The Eagles open their season at the Pleasant Hope Invitational March 17.