By John Miller/For OzarksSportsZone.com
Not many programs can lose the level of talent that Kickapoo did last spring and still be looking at a strong season ahead.
After graduating six key seniors, most of which are now playing college baseball, the Chiefs have a strong group of returners and are hopeful for big things this coming spring.
“Our expectations are the same as they have been my entire four years at Kickapoo,” said senior 1B/P Chandler Jones. “We strive to win a district championship and make it back to the final four.”
Those are pretty lofty expectations for a team that finished 24-8 last year, went 8-1 in the Ozark Conference, and saw its season end prematurely in the district championship game to Nixa.
The Chiefs graduated first-team all-state pitcher Kaleb Schmidt, now playing at Central Arkansas, who went 8-0 with a .74 ERA as a senior last year.
Also graduated is first-team all-state outfielder Riley Herron, now at Drury, who hit .404 with 22 extra base hits and swiped 16 bases last year. Second-team all-state catcher Westin Gann, now at College of the Ozarks, was a great defensive catcher and leader for the Chiefs last year.
Kyle Giefer, playing at Harding, was an all-conference player and offensive threat in Kickapoo’s robust lineup. Tristan Stevens was a starting outfielder and pitcher and a middle of the order hitter while Preston Keisker, a three-year starter in the infield, has also graduated and will be missed.
Even with so much talent graduated, this year’s Kickapoo team is confident they have the pieces in place to keep up the program’s strong tradition.
“We have a lot of younger guys who have worked hard and are ready to get playing time at the varsity level,” said senior OF/P Adam Link.
If this year’s Kickapoo team will be like the teams of years past, they’ll need big contributions from the likes of Jones, Link, SS Robbie Merced, and P Michael Barnes. They’ll also need help from a long list of newcomers that includes senior C Andrew Kauffman, junior IF Quin Reasoner, junior IF/P Kolton Giefer, junior OF Zac Salyers, sophomore P/OF Mason Auer, senior OF Drake Grimm, junior IF Cole McCarville, senior P Mason Hatch, senior P Sean Cole, and junior P Logan Harper.
“Each player on this team has something to prove to themselves and their teammates,” Kickapoo coach Jason Howser said. “We have very little returning experience, and the constant competition from each player for playing time should provide an ability to get better as the season goes on.”
Merced, the son of former big-leaguer Orlando Merced, has signed to play baseball for Missouri State next year, while teammate Adam Link has committed to Jefferson College.
“This team is going to pitch well and play very solid defense,” Link said. “I am confident that we will have the best nine guys on the field defensively of any team in the area.”
To get to where they want to go, the Chiefs know they can’t overlook any opponent, or even any pitch.
“We want to compete each pitch of each inning in each game for the entire season,” Howser said. “We want to continually improve as the season plays out. When we play the game the right way, more times than not, we will like the outcome.