By Kary Booher/For OzarksSportsZone.com
A No. 10 preseason state ranking will welcome the Macks Creek High School baseball team this season, one year after the Pirates’ late-season charge led to a Class 1 sectional appearance.
“I told the boys that it’s nice to have that ranking, but they’re not one of the unknowns anymore,” Macks Creek coach Jason Trusty said. “They just said, ‘OK, Coach.’”
In other words, the Pirates appear ready to embrace the spotlight in 2017. And why not?
While no one would assume that its 12-16 finish of a year ago is much to talk about, Macks Creek knocked off state-ranked Lakeland and Hermitage in the district tournament and then led New Covenant Academy before suffering 3-2 loss in the bottom of the seventh of the sectional. That led to high praise from NCA coach John Hartley, one of the most respected coaches in southwest Missouri.
However, the Pirates graduated three key pieces of last year’s team, including all-state pitcher Matt Hicks (now at Evangel) and all-district pitcher Ben Lutz.
That means higher profile roles on the mound for junior right-hander Gage Mashburn and Justin Conolly-Register.
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Mashburn is a two-time selection as all-state and was first team all-district a year ago after compiling a 3.80 earned run average. He had team-bests in innings pitched (49.2) and strikeouts (61).
“He’s the anchor of our staff,” Trusty said. “He’s one of those kids who works quick and has a good baseball mind. He’s probably the workhorse.”
After Mashburn, it’ll be an all hands on deck, given the new state rules on pitch counts.
“In Class 1, that’s kind of what you’re going to have to do,” said Trusty, a 2001 Iberia High School graduate who pitched three seasons for Central Methodist University. “With that pitch count, I’m going to have to adjust my strategy. If you threw the ball on junior varsity or threw in Little League at one point in your life, you’re going on the bump just so we can make it through games.”
The defense behind them will have to deliver, but that’s an area that Trusty has made a priority of in his previous seven seasons in Macks Creek.
With Hicks gone, Mashburn will move from third base to shortstop, with Register and even Chandler possible middle infielders. Trusty also has deployed a strategy in which everybody takes grounders one day, flyballs the next and so forth.
“That way,” Trusty said, “they are interchangeable parts.”
Hunter Thompson, a junior, likely will patrol center field.
“He didn’t play for a while but joined us last year, and he runs like a deer,” Trusty said. “The amount of ground he covers is impressive. And when he misreads a ball, he can still get to it.”
Cameron Charlton, a senior, should handle catcher duties and also anchor the lineup. He threw out 28 of 81 baserunners last year and allowed only two passed balls. He’s also got 2.1 to 2.2-second pop times to second base.
“He can throw from his knees if he needs to,” Trusty said.
The projected lineup has Chandler Charlton at leadoff, followed by sophomore designated hitter Oscar Cortez, Cameron Charlton, first baseman Jesse Linton, Mashburn or freshman Hunter Lane at third base, Register at second, and either Thompson or Zane Whitworth and then senior Austin Zollman.
Cameron Charlton last year finished with team-bests in average (.494), hits (42), doubles (11), home runs (3) and RBIs (28). His last home run came in the sectional. Mashburn, Chandler Carlton and Linton combined for 36 RBIs. Zollman was an all-district honorable mention.
A tough schedule awaits. A year ago, Macks Creek was 10-7 against Class 1 teams but 2-9 against all others. But that’s by design.
“We play a lot of bigger schools, but I think that benefits us,” Trusty said. “It’s all about getting stronger. Fortunately, they have it burned into their minds that they can compete with anybody. They don’t have that quit button.”