By Derek Shore (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The Crane Pirates drew buzz early on in the 2017 season, opening up the spring as a state-ranked team.
But the 2017-version of the Pirates featured a streaky club with flashes of brilliance and struggles at other times, compiling a 12-9 overall record by season’s end.
While they finished third in SWCL play thanks to a 4-1 record, a couple of rainouts cost Crane an opportunity to play for a share of the conference championship. After a big win over Billings in the first round of districts, their comeback fell short against the eventual district champion and quarterfinalist Galena promptly ending their season.
“That semi-final game was a microcosm of our season,” Crane head coach Bryan Harmon described his team’s last game in 2017 and continued, “as we fell behind early before battling back in the late innings only to leave the tying runs on base as the game came to an end.”
With the new season, comes graduation and the Pirates saw five seniors walk across the graduation stage in 2017, who were all starters in Hunter Brantley, Weston Cloyd, Caleb Head, Bryston Hooten, and Justin Terrell.
On a positive note, Crane returns eight lettermen and five starters to the diamond this spring, headlined by a strong core of seniors to lead the way.
Of the five returning seniors, Brent Williams will man shortstop after posting a .345 average with 19 total hits and 10 RBI last season. He will be counted on to produce in the middle of the lineup and give lots of innings in relief on the mound.
One of the primary starters last year, senior Colby Smith went 3-2 with a 3.21 ERA and will also look to improve upon a .219 average at the dish.
“Colby will be counted on to drive in runs in the middle of the lineup and be a consistent starting pitcher,” Harmon said.
Not only that, Colton Elder returns after posting the pitching staff’s lowest ERA with a 1.69 mark and a 5-1 record to boot. Elder also brings a .260 batting average with six of his 13 hits going for extra-bases.
“Colton will be counted on to drive in runs from the middle of the order and regain his
dominance on the mound,” his coach said.
Harley Howard (pitcher/first baseman) and Wyatt Vaught (pitcher/second baseman) round out the seniors. Howard batted .281 with 16 total hits, four doubles, and two home runs last season while recording a team-high 20 RBIs. Vaught had a 1-2 record on the mound with a 4.20 ERA and also had a .250 average with 14 hits.
“Harley will be expected to drive in runs in the middle of the lineup while logging innings as a
starter and play lockdown defense at first base,” Harmon said. “Wyatt will be counted on to set the table from the leadoff spot while playing great defense up the middle and being a force on the mound.”
Sophomores Darin Terrell (catcher/outfielder), Heath Quick (outfielder), and Nick Brannan (outfielder) are the remaining returnees for Crane.
Terrell will hit in multiple spots in the order while being given the task of handling the pitching staff behind the plate. Brannon is expected to chase balls down in the outfield all while becoming a starting pitcher and Quick is look at to get on base and shore up the defense in the outfield. He will also compete for mound time.
In terms of newcomers, Harmon listed seven players who could see varsity time. Those names include junior Wyatt Cloyd (outfielder), sophomore Wesley Branstetter (infielder/outfielder), and freshman Isaiah Smith (outfield/pitcher), Brecken Vaught (infielder/outfielder), Chase Conrad (shortstop/pitcher), Isaac Robinson (catcher/infielder), and Zane Compton (infielder/outfielder).
“After a 16-8 fall season in which we finished second in the SWCL Tournament, we expect to build on the positives and work to avoid the struggles of inexperience,” Harmon said. “With the hard work being done in the offseason, many players have the chance to become stronger and tougher which will hopefully help us in the close games where we struggled last spring.
“There is a lot of talent and depth on this team. Our goal is the have everyone playing their best when we enter the postseason.”
Crane opens the season at home against Charleston on March 16.