By Kary Booher (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Two years after winning a Class 5 district championship, the Waynesville High School baseball team seems poised to make a strong run at one again.
Consider this: Two sophomores and four freshman on that team are now upperclassmen, with tons of varsity experience.
“We’ve got a lot of experience coming back,” Waynesville coach Scott Turner said. “For the first time in awhile, we have a heavy junior-senior team.”
You could hear the optimism in Turner’s voice when he offered those words. But given that he has coached 195 games in his career already, Turner also offers a bit of caution.
And it all centers on the state’s new pitch-count rules, which are leading the Tigers to seek out a so-called Johnny Bullpen behind junior pitcher Ethan Brown and senior pitcher Landon Jennings.
“We have to figure out who on the bump is going to get the job done,” Turner said. “If we score 10 runs a game but if we give up 11, it doesn’t matter.”
Hopefully for Waynesville, Brown and Jennings can set the tone as the Tigers seek to rebound from a 10-15 season a year ago.
Both were honorable mention All-Ozark Conference last year. Brown had the same number of walks as strikeouts (28) in 33 1/3 innings, giving up 31 hits. Jennings pitched 13 2/3 innings on a staff led by three since-graduated arms, including All-Ozarks selection Trey Simpson.
Juniors Tanner Simpson, Eric Cane and catcher Ethan Gatzemeyer may see time on the mound.
“(Brown) started out really well last year. He had an under-2 ERA after five games. But after being a sophomore, the consistency is something he needs to improve on,” Turner said. “And for a lot of these guys, they’ve had the opportunity to gain more experience (in summer ball) and compete at higher levels. For some of these guys, it’s their third year on varsity, so the game should be much slower.”
Gatzemeyer, an All-District catcher last year, could emerge as a “glue guy” who holds much of the team together, given he is a 6-foot-4, 240-pound target and may have some pop in his bat, too. He had 10 RBI last season.
“Being a big guy, he can definitely handle the ball behind the plate and he’s a big target to throw to,” Turner said. “Hitting-wise, he’s worked really hard on his swing.”
Look for Brown or Noah Ochao atop the order, followed by Simpson, Jennings, Gatzemeyer and senior first baseman Justen Leifer. Last season, Ochoa hit .311, best among the returnees.
Still, the lineup has to produce, given the Tigers graduated three players who combined for 40 RBI.
“Last year we were more of a small-ball team, but all of these guys have put time in in the offseason,” Turner said. “Our goal is to go for a lot of extra-base hits. I think 55 extra-base hits is the best in the last five years here, and I hope we can beat that.”
Other notables include Cameron Marcum, Alex Dubin, Devon Stearns, Eric Kane, Brendan Finch, Brock Timmons and Briley Wade.
Fortunately for Waynesville, several players have either competed in basketball or wrestling and those who didn’t have been regulars in the weight room.
“Hopefully that helps us drive the ball and helps our pitchers have more strength. They’ve definitely put in the work,” Turner said. “For the upperclassmen, they don’t want (2015) to be the only time they win a district championship. And they have goals of going even farther.”