By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The curse of a deep basketball run, her name is early season baseball.
The boys of spring can understandably be a bit rusty after stepping immediately off a postseason basketball court and hitting the diamond.
This is especially true for schools the size of Walnut Grove, now under the tutelage of first-time head coach Trevor Bowling.
“We have just been trying to figure out how we are going to do that first week of practice,” he said. “In the meantime, our coaches have been nailing down what we want to do offensively and defensively.”
Bowling spent last season on the staff at Willard and takes over for Andrew Stepp, who earned a job with Ohio University. The Southwest Baptist and College of the Ozarks product inherits plenty of talent; a crop that did not allow a state basketball championship run to slow them down last season. Walnut Grove spent much of the spring ranked No. 1 in Class 1 and earned the top seed in its district before being stunned by Halfway.
The Tigers lost four starters from that group but have all the tools to make themselves believe they can reach the playoffs. That starts with Missouri State commit Logan Thomazin, a First Team All-State selection and reigning Polk County League Most Valuable Player.
Bowling witnessed Thomazin and his ability first-hand last year when Walnut Grove suffered a 10-8 loss at Willard.
“He should dominate every single Class 1 school we play, honestly.”
Thomazin opted for the baseball route by signing with Missouri State in November despite being the all-time state three-point leader. His latest numbers read as follows: a 4-1 record in nine appearances a junior with a 1.99 ERA and a team-high 74 strikeouts.
He also led Walnut Grove with a stout .515 batting average to go with five home runs and 23 RBI.
The biggest question the Tigers may face is who will fill in the starting rotation behind Thomazin. Hayden Jeffryes, Kyle Keith, and Jaron Dishman have departed the program after accounting for 94.2 innings pitched. Hunter Gilkey (Sr., C/P) and Ryan Keith (Jr. SS/P/C) both bring back experience on the mound, taking the ball in 10 combined games in 2017.
Gilkey, a Second Team All-PCL performer, tossed just 6.2 innings last season, but could be dealt some immediate starting responsibilities.
“He is an extreme competitor who hates to lose at anything,” said Bowling. “He is a great energy guy. He will be behind the plate and we may have to rely on him to be our No. 2 on the mound.”
He added 29 hits and 18 RBI as a junior.
Both he and Thomazin are tied up during basketball season, meaning Bowling has settle for some light band work before they are able to fully immerse themselves into a spring schedule.
John Smith (1B) wields another bat to watch. He posted a .391 average last year, second-highest on the team, and drove in 16 runs.
The Tigers open the season ranked No. 10 in Class 1 and, if they can solidify their platoon of arms, will have the caliber to take another crack at a district championship. Bowling believes this group is deserving of that honor.
“This group of seniors is extremely talented. They have done so much for this town in terms of sports and just being great people. It would be a shame if they left without getting a district title in baseball. That would cement their legacy as being the best all-around male athletes to ever go through this school.”