By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Expectations remain high in 2018 for state champion Aurora
A 27-3 record last season will help Aurora’s baseball program establish a blueprint for future success.
Having a Class 4 state title probably won’t hurt.
Head coach James Hoffman believes the championship drive was a culmination of many long hours dedicated to the process.
“The majority of our kids on the field had started or played significant innings since they were freshman,” Hoffman said. “They have been at both ends of the spectrum as far as wins and losses, but the one thing that got this group as a whole over the hump was the fact that they showed up every day and worked to get better. It didn’t matter who or where they were playing, they were going to do their best to compete.”
If the 2018 Houn’ Dawgs are to reach a similar conclusion, spots in the lineup must be filled to account for three all-state selections in pitcher Zac Shoemaker (12-0, .285 ERA), catcher Kaleb Baker (.330, 17 RBI, 5 SB) and outfielder Preston Naylor (.372, 15 RBI, 6 SB). Brett Schellen, Justis Mooneyham and Payton Evans round out the list of departed seniors.
Both Shoemaker and Baker continue to play at Missouri Southern State University.
“Our graduates will be missed,” Hoffman said. “Losing three all-staters and four-year starters will be difficult to replace. More importantly, the group of kids that graduated were great teammates who set an example that will hopefully continue to future members of our program.”
Losing three all-state selections might cripple other programs, but Aurora’s cupboard remains well-stocked, with four other all-state selections returning this season.
First-team honorees Wyatt Sparks, Matthew Miller and Gage Singer, along with honorable mention Ryan Cline, return to lead the Houn’ Dawg attack.
Sparks, the Ozark Sports Zone Pitcher of the Year in 2017, posted an 8-2 record with an .866 ERA and 121 strikeouts. The senior was just as effective at the plate, hitting .380 with 21 RBI from the leadoff position.
“Wyatt will be expected to anchor our pitching staff and play shortstop when not on the mound,” Hoffman said. “He is a big-time competitor and one of the hardest-working kids we have ever had come through our program.”
Miller offers the team another quality arm and will likely move from the outfield to first base this season. The senior hit .378 with 35 RBI in 2017 and compiled a 4-0 record on the mound with a .741 ERA and 42 strikeouts.
“Matthew’s postseason heroics last year will be remembered for a long time,” Hoffman said. “With a walk-off, three-run homerun in the district championship game and the monster shot he hit over the wall in the state championship game to get the offense going, his power is something that our opponents can’t overlook.”
A dangerous hitter, Singer will hit from the three- or four-spot in the lineup. The junior infielder led the team at the plate last season hitting .389 with 26 RBI.
“Gage possesses an extremely well rounded defensive skill set,” Hoffman said. “His combination of glovework and arm strength make him a fun player to watch.”
Cline, an all-state honorable mention, hit .347 as a freshman and provided the needed offense at the bottom of the lineup.
Seniors Miah Fisher (CF), Austin Erickson (P/1B/OF) and Blake Williams (P/INF) also return.
Newcomers to the Aurora varsity roster this season include junior Casey Weathermon (OF), sophomore Jay Lee (IF/P), senior Cody Childress (OF) and freshman Carson Barr (UT).
Aurora’s success in 2018 will begin on the mound. The majority of the Houn’ Dawg staff returns after striking out over 300 hitters last season.
“Our pitching staff will be extremely good and probably deeper than any other in our class,” Hoffman said. “We have an extremely talented group of senior pitchers and go four deep with kids that are 80+mph with good off-speed pitches to compliment. If our kids stay healthy I look for a lot of success on the mound.”
At the plate, Aurora will look to make an immediate impact, as well. Five players return to a lineup that, combined, posted 44 extra-base hits and 112 RBI last season.
“We will continue to focus on building our offensive production,” Hoffman said. “We have many of the same strengths as last year’s squad, however we some question areas in some defensive positions that will have to be answered.”
Aurora begins its season March 16 in the Bolivar Tournament.