By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Kickapoo captured a share of the 2017 Ozark Conference Championship and reached sectionals for the second time in three years before falling to nationally-ranked Jefferson City. A quality campaign by any standard, but the effort to get the Chiefs even more battle-tested for May baseball began early this offseason.
Jason Howser, now in his 14th year as head coach, put together what he believes is the toughest non-conference schedule ever at Kickapoo. It features teams from Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas along with Ozark, CBC, and Marquette, all ranked in the MHSBCA Preseason Class 5 poll.
“We have beefed our schedule up because that is how we play,” said Howser. “We are looking forward to the challenges ahead and I’m looking forward to watching them come together as their own team with their own identity.”
There will be little time for the Chiefs to mature. It starts with the pitching staff, which will be without the services of reigning Ozark Conference Pitcher of the Year Adam Link, along with seven other seniors. The Second Team All-State selection may have been the undisputed staff leader before heading across town to Drury, but his absence just scratches the surface of what Kickapoo is up against to reload its rotation.
“Our senior staff combined for about 70 percent of our innings last year. We’re working diligently to find those 210 innings that we’re hopefully going to play this spring.”
Junior Mason Auer (P/OF) returns with the most experience and could slot into the ace role. The Chiefs quarterback in the fall, he tossed 33.1 innings with a 2.31 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 2017.
Fellow junior Kolton Giefer, an All-OC honoree at third base, will be asked to take the mound more often, as will senior Cole McCarville after primarily serving as designated hitter last spring.
Others who will fight for innings include seniors Logan Harper, Coleman Shevey, and Zach Kellogg along with juniors Aaron Sawchak, Matt Burris, Ray Bailey, and David Senn.
“Our senior class is so big and we have a lot of guys who’ve waited their turns,” said Howser. “Many of those guys are pitchers and they’re going to get a chance to earn their keep.”
Senior Zac Salyers also returns to the outfield after a Second Team nod for All-OC and carries 32 hits, 14 RBI, and a .330 batting average from last spring.
Giefer will add to the plate production as he brings back a team-high 17 RBI.
Numbers will favor the Chiefs, as is often the case. There is depth to be found as long as those pieces are plugged into the right spots and situations. Howser is not shy about how small the learning curve may need to be.
“It’s their turn. It’s one thing to be a part of talented teams in the past, which we’ve been blessed to have. No one cares what we’ve done the past few years. If anything, it gives teams more motivation to lock in against us. No one is going to feel sorry for us if we stub our toe a few times.”