By Kary Booher (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Rex Sawyer has been coaching 34 years, 23 as the baseball coach at Ava High School. So, yes, he’s walked into seasons like this before.
That is, having graduated a smorgasbord of talent and needing reinforcements. Not that he’s changing his style or message.
“Whether they are freshmen or seniors, they have to be the best on the field,” Sawyer said. “There’s nothing sewed down.”
The Ava Bears, however, should be competitive, given they return juniors in shortstop Caleb Johnson, utilityman Tom Emerich and senior catcher Aaron Everett. Johnson and Emerich were First Team All-District and All-South Central Association. And the other storyline this year will find Sawyer, who is closing in on 300 wins. He is 291-197.
Johnson hit .506 with 41 hits, including 15 doubles, and had 30 RBI and 21 stolen bases. Emerich had 30 hits, 16 RBI and 18 steals.
“Johnson is an outstanding hitter, good leader and he’s a fireball – sometimes too fiery,” Sawyer said. “He and Emerich are two of the best juniors in the area. Both have excellent speed and excellent arms. They know what to do.”
Everett has caught a significant number of innings the past 1 ½ seasons, having solidified the job last season after a potential all-state catcher suffered a basketball injury.
“He’s a well-disciplined young man. He’s got a good arm. And he’s extremely good at blocking the ball,” Sawyer said.
Johnson and Emerich also will be on the mound – Johnson was 4-2 with a 1.45 ERA — but look for senior Wyatt Gastineau to get a ton of innings. He’s a left-hander and somewhat a mystery on the mound.
“He’s not going to overpower anybody. He’s 71-80 mph at most,” Sawyer said. “But throwing that breaking ball in there will keep them off balance. He got a few innings last year. But he was a late bloomer to baseball, so we didn’t want to throw him to the wolves.”
Gastineau will play center when he’s not pitching and could bat ninth, giving the Bears a guy who can handle the bat before the lineup turns over. He hit .364 at the plate with 14 RBI and 13 steals last year, earning First Team All-District and First Team All-SCA.
“He’s got great speed,” Sawyer said. “And I like having a leadoff guy down at No. 9.”
Those four will be key a year after Ava graduated Kolton Ritter, Nick Sterling and Devin Elliott. Ritter and Sterling were both All-District and All-SCA, with Elliott also all-conference, on a 19-6 team that reached the district championship game.
Look for seniors Weston Stillings, Joey Swofford and sophomores Aeneas Stout and Kayden Myers also to factor in.
Stillings and Swofford could compete at first base, with Swofford also a possibility at second base. Stout could move to third base.
Sawyer said he has 13 freshmen, the most he’s ever had in his tenure, and figures a few could break into the varsity lineup.
“It’s a building year,” Sawyer said. “But it’s good to watch them. It’s their time to step up and maybe get a little highlight.”