By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
It’s an all-around new look for the Hillcrest baseball team this spring.
In the lineup, the Hornets must replace eight lettermen overall, including six starters.
On the field, the Hornets will break in a new turf infield and host their district tournament for the first time in several years.
“We’re excited about our new turf infield and the opportunities it provides us to work when others are inside,” said 11th-year Hillcrest coach Ryan Schaffitzel. “We feel we have one of the nicest places to play in southwest Missouri.
“Hopefully (hosting districts) will come with some home field advantage.”
The Hornets graduated a stellar senior class. Several players were two- or three-year starters who played multiple positions.
Drury signee and all-state selection Brant Schaffitzel hit .421 with a team-high six doubles and 32 total hits. College of the Ozarks signee Devin Ryan was 5-4 with a 3.56 ERA and hit .321 with a team-best 21 RBIs.
Tanner Cassity (DH; Central Methodist), Josh Horned (C), Dustin Irvine (3B), Kyle Johannsen (LHP) and Kamron Grant (CF) are also gone.
The Hornets finished 15-14 overall and reached their district title game, falling to Willard.
“We had opportunities to win 20 games,” Ryan Schaffitzel said. “We were competitive in a tough conference. Last year’s team was a lot of fun to coach because of the closeness that team had. Several of the players had played together since elementary school and worked well together as a unit.
“The seniors we lost take away a lot of production both offensively and on the mound. Several of them will be difficult to replace.”
Four players with significant varsity experience return for the Hornets this spring.
The senior trio of Haden Parton, Devin McCullough and Brandon Ross lead the way.
Parton (OF/IF/P) had three homers, 23 RBIs and seven steals last season. He’s played outfield the past two seasons but could see time in the infield this year.
McCullough (IF/P) went 2-3 with a 3.37 ERA and hit .308 with 22 RBIs.
“Haden was one of our most productive hitters last season. We’ll need him to provide positive leadership to a young team this year,” Ryan Schaffitzel said. “Devin’s another two-way guy we rely heavily on, both on the mound and at the plate.”
Ross (UT) had 13 steals last season. He’s capable of playing the outfield, infield, catcher or pitcher.
A fourth senior, Brett Letterman (6’3”, 190 lbs.), tore his labrum in the fall and had surgery. He’ll likely miss the entire spring season.
Letterman was 4-4 overall with a 4.42 ERA last season. At the plate, he had six extra-base hits.
“It’s a huge loss for us but Brett is a stand-up kid and will continue to be a positive influence from the bench and in any other way he can,” Ryan Schaffitzel said.
Junior Caden Morrow emerged as a promising prospect last season. He collected a win in a late-season game against Harrisonville and figures to be one of Hillcrest’s top pitchers this year.
After that, it’s last year’s top JV and freshmen players looking to crack the varsity lineup.
They include five juniors: Brock Schaffitzel (IF/C), Carter Campbell (IF/P), Caleb Wiseman (OF/P), Grant Morris (UT) and Dayton Highfill (UT).
And six sophomores: Austin Bonham (IF/P), Dean Phillips (OF/P), Garrett Cates (C), Tanner Sullivan (P), Chase Griesemer (OF) and Christian Blackwell (OF).
Two freshmen – Avery Grant (UT/P) and Landon Clark (UT/P) – are also on the coach’s watch list.
“The underclassmen in our program will need to grow up fast for us to compete considering the schedule we play,” Ryan Schaffitzel said. “Several of the underclassmen got valuable experience last summer that they will need to carry over to this spring.
“Preseason practice should include a lot of competition among teammates to win the various opening that exist. That should make things more fun in the early going.”
Hillcrest begins the regular season March 16-23 at the Lindbergh Tournament in St. Louis.