By Derek Shore (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The Carl Junction Bulldogs faced many obstacles entering the spring of 2017, especially after a remarkable 52-win stretch over a two year span.
Most importantly, how would they be able to replace seven quality starters from the previous year?
Despite going through their share of ups and downs last spring, Carl Junction compiled a 10-17 overall record (3-5 in COC-Large play) while finishing the season on a strong note, winning five of their last seven games en route to a 11-5 loss to Monett in the district championship game.
“Last year was a challenging year,” Carl Junction head coach Jake Stevenson said, who swapped roles with longtime head coach Flave Darnell previously as an assistant. “Trying to replace seven quality starters is no easy task. We asked players to step into roles that had minimal varsity innings. We had growing pains to start the season but those players continued to develop and get better.
“As coaches, we were pleased with our players for the way they stayed the course and ended the season. Last year’s senior class will be missed.”
Now, the Bulldogs will be without six lettermen and five starters from last season due to graduation, including second-team All-Conference pitcher Hunter Adams, who holds the lowest career ERA at Carl Junction (1.49). Dason Boren and Jared Wells also graduated, who are currently playing baseball at Southwest Baptist University and Highland Community College, respectively.
“Hunter was a great leader and competitor,” Stevenson said. “His competitive spirit will be missed, especially on the mound. Dason was a very good infielder and was a strong presence on the mound. He threw a ton of strikes for us and kept us in many ball games. He also was very reliable at third base. Jared was a very hard worker and led by example. He had a good senior year and was a very consistent outfielder.”
Other key departures include Colby Sullivan, Lucas Hatfield, and Jake Allison.
The Bulldogs will look to five lettermen and four key starters to get them back on the winning track.
Headlining the returnees, second-team All-Conference catcher Dawson Fenix, who paced the offense with a .342 average last season. Fenix also tallied 26 total hits, four doubles, one triple, and had 17 RBIs as a junior.
“Dawson is a good teammate and a good leader,” Stevenson said. “He is a two-year starter and will catch for us this year. He is a good hitter and will be one of our better hitters in our lineup.”
Another returning starter will be Landon Tracy, a senior outfielder, who hit .250 with 16 total hits and drove in five RBI last year.
“Landon is a good athlete and has good speed,” his coach said. “He is a strong outfielder and is a quality hitter.”
Senior Brett Benefiel and junior Jeremiah Kennedy are the remaining returning starters for Carl Junction. A utility-player, Benefiel had a .205 batting clip with 16 total hits and seven RBI last season. Kennedy, who saw most of his time on the mound, went 3-1 with a 3.46 ERA for the Bulldogs.
“Brett has a strong arm and can multiple positions,” Stevenson said. “Offensively will be in the top of our lineup. He had a good summer on the mound and hopefully he works into the rotation. is a good both on and off the field. Jeremiah is a talented player with a strong arm. We expect him to pitch and compete in a lot of big games this year.”
To round out the returnees is senior infielder Brooks Neria, who saw limited varsity action last spring.
“Brooks is a true leader and extremely hard worker,” Stevenson said. “He is a great teammate and represents our program very well. Brooks is a good hitter and will compete for a spot in the infield this season.”
Carl Junction also has a big group of newcomers that are expected to emerge onto the varsity scene – senior Carlos Rodriguez (pitcher/infielder) as well as juniors Dalton Honey (pitcher/infielder), Max Medley (outfielder), Denver Doran (outfielder), and Tyler Benefiel (pitcher/outfielder). The Bulldogs will also welcome a couple sophomores – Cooper Cook (pitcher/infielder), Teagan Armentrout (infielder/catcher), and Garrett Taylor (outfielder).
Rodriguez, Honey, and Benefiel are expected to compete for a spots on the infield and quality innings on the mound this season. Medley, Doran, and Taylor will compete for positions in the outfield while Cook and Armentrout will fight for time in the infield as well.
“As a first-year head coach, I am blessed to have the opportunity to start my head coaching career in Carl Junction,” Stevenson said. “This is home to me and I couldn’t have picked a better community to coach in. There is a rich baseball history here and we look to continue that tradition.
“With some talented young players coming up in our program, we are excited about the upcoming season. The team had a good summer and have been working hard in the off-season. Our team’s focus this year will be leadership and defense. We lost some talented seniors from last year’s team that will be tough to replace.
“That being said, we have some players that are hungry and ready to compete for time at the varsity level.”
Carl Junction opens the season on the road against Logan Rogersville on March 17.