By Kary Booher (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Considering the Willard High School baseball team graduated nine seniors – including six starters – you might assume that the Tigers are looking at a rebuild.
That assumption would be wrong.
“Guys grow up knowing this is what’s expected you get to varsity,” Willard coach Scott McGee said, noting that youth coaches and parents have helped foster growth of his players. “For a lot of programs, starting a sophomore would be a red flag. But we’ve known these guys for years.”
As the curtain rises on the 2018 season, Willard should be competitive again a year after finishing 24-5, winning the Central Ozark Conference outright for the fifth time in six years and losing the eventual state champion Jefferson City in the sectional.
It’s a team featuring senior Tanner Norris, a First Team All-Central Ozark Conference selection, as the No. 1 arm on the mound, and sophomore University of Missouri commit Garrett Rice as the big stick in the lineup. And they have an intriguing supporting cast.
Norris not only led the team in hits and was second in RBI last year, but he has compiled an 8-0 record with three saves on the mound the past two seasons combined.
“He pitched in the COC championship against Branson and was the starter in the (all-important) district semifinals against Rolla,” McGee said. “Having somebody like that in that role hopefully will be good for us.”
Matthew Eleiott, a senior right-hander, was 7-0 last year in 49 1/3 innings. He struck out 50 and issued only 18 walks and earned Second Team All-COC Large.
“You kind of feel like, if you can score four runs, you can win a lot of games,” McGee said. “Both of those guys are in the upper 80s with good offspeed and they throw a lot of strikes.”
The two arms also could be significant in this sense – as calming influences.
Willard, you see, graduated COC Player of the Year Ben Morris, along with Truman State signee Benjamin Fugitt, Southwest Baptist commit Caleb Lasher, William Woods signee Connor Poulson, Evangel signee Brady Owen, Dakota Campbell as well as Cory Watson and Jonathan Daehling. They helped Willard set a school wins record. Fugitt, Lasher, Poulson and Owen were all First Team All-COC Large selections. Campbell was a second team selection.
Fortunately, Norris and Eleiott won’t be alone in leading the charge. The lineup features Rice. He batted .266 last year but had 21 hits – one of eight Tigers who had at least 21 hits a year ago.
“He’s got the most talent of anybody I’ve coached,” said McGee, who is 194-100 at Willard. “He’s always looking to hit and hit for power. Fortunately, we’ve got a group of seniors above him who like him. He doesn’t put pressure on himself, and they don’t put pressure on him. We’re all moving to work toward the same goal.”
The projected lineup calls for junior outfielder Noah Wooldridge and sophomore outfielder Ethan Thompson atop the order, followed by Rice and Norris. From there, look for senior shortstop Cameron Pope, sophomore catcher Cole Biellier and sophomore second baseman Grant Harris.
Wooldridge and Thompson are both up from JV but should be able to get on base, steal bags and do all the important things of leadoff batters.
Pope has been a solid defender and gives Willard quality at-bats.
Look for junior Jacob Van Doren, senior Blake Moore, senior Evan Dock, sophomore Reece Dawson and senior Landon Taylor to find their way into the lineup as well.
“We had a bunch of kids who played football, and they had a lot of success,” McGee said. “They jumped in and starts working out in November. So they’re chomping at the bit.”