By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Ozark fell just shy of its bid for a third straight COC-Large title in 2017, finishing second with a 7-2 conference mark.
They suffered the same fate in districts, dropping a 14-7 decision to Kickapoo in the title game to finish the season 19-9.
Don’t believe that hiccup will hamper the Tigers’ bid to return to the top of the league in 2018. Mike Essick, now in his 23rd year at Ozark, once again brings back a strong nucleus.
“This group of guys have played together for a long time,” said Essick. “They are a tight knit group that love the game, and are easy and fun to coach. They possess a lot of pieces to the puzzle, but need to acquire the mental toughness that baseball demands if they aspire to go deep into post-season play.”
The Tigers did lose five letterman to graduation, all of whom are playing college ball, but welcome back seven starters and five all-conference selections.
Senior Parker Hanks will lead the mound effort as the reigning COC-Larger Pitcher of the Year. He continued the Division I pipeline of Ozark Athletics by signing his letter of intent to play at Northwestern in November. This came after an 8-0 campaign that carried a svelte .629 ERA.
He is also the top returning run producer with 16 RBI a season ago.
Hanks is joined by fellow unanimous All-COC and 1st Team All District selection Forrest Barnes, who is committed to pitch at Missouri State next spring. He carried a 1.61 ERA and 3-2 record through 2017. He saw time at shortstop when not on the mound and drove in 15 runs.
Curt Gracey, another all-conference senior, will also be key if he can bounce back from a lower body injury in football for the second straight season. The outfielder missed significant time during the 2017-2018 basketball campaign while nursing his knee.
He will be the top Ozark returner in batting average (.411), hits (30), and stolen bases (14).
Senior Cade Little (P/1B) and junior Blake Mozley (P/Util.) round out the Tigers’ all-conference selections and will both be tasked with pitching in big games.
Returning starter Chuck Hill (C/3B) joins newcomers Dustin Banks (OF) and Ethan Hanks (OF) to complete a stout group of seniors.
Ozark has the usual tall task to reclaim the COC-Large and a district title and Mike Essick knows he has the experienced leadership to keep his team focused on that fact.
“If you don’t show up mentally and physically prepared, you will be going home with your tail between your legs!” said Essick. “Without a doubt, District 11 has to rank as one of the toughest districts in the state! If you aren’t a 1 seed in our district, you will have to have 3 quality pitchers, plus some relief pitching due to state mandated pitch counts.”