By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
There may not have been a fall baseball season for Clever this school year, but that did little to stymie the enthusiasm surrounding the upcoming campaign.
In 2017, the Blue Jays went 21-5 in the fall, setting the stage for an impressive spring as they broke in one of the most talented freshmen classes in program history. Clever managed an 18-7 record with a second-round exit in districts.
Head coach Justin Snider plainly stated that, no matter what type of roster the Blue Jays or their district counterparts put together, someone has to find the recipe to beat Strafford. After getting a 95 percent turnout rate at offseason workouts, Snider believes he is seeing the growth in his squad that would put them up to that exact task.
“We played a bunch of young kids last year and some of them who were 5’5” are now 5’9” or 5’10”, which helps. They’re not 105 pounds anymore either,” he said.
Having this positive outlook after losing five all-conference selections speaks to the talent level in the program at this stage. Clever does return a trio of senior SWCL honorees, led by All-State catcher Logan Peebles. He topped the Blue Jays in every offensive category in 2018, hitting .420 with 25 runs driven in and 29 total hits.
The backstop is a flush position with sophomore Tanner Bradshaw sitting behind Peebles on the depth chart. He turned in his own First Team All-SWCL season as a freshman in the utility role. Snider believes he is one of the area’s best catchers not making every day starts.
That is a microcosm of the talented youth that mixes with senior leadership. Clever expects to have more freedom with its lineup this spring as underclassmen are not only talented enough, but mentally prepared to assume new roles.
“A lot of these kids are hitting at least five times a week. When they’re not throwing, they’re hitting. Those are the ones that I’d expect to make an instant impact.”
All-SWCL senior Trace Comer is one example of change. He plans to shift from the leadoff spot to the heart of the order to capitalize on his power. He will also provide depth to the pitching staff in relief while starting for the third straight season in the outfield.
Quinn Gundelfinger will assume the leadoff role after an honorable mention all-conference selection as a freshman. He is a large reason why the Blue Jays were on pace to set a new state record for fielding percentage in 2018 before injuries struck. The second baseman might be the most gifted defender that Snider has seen at Clever.
Senior Nathan King will slot next to Gundelfinger in his third year at shortstop.
The pitching rotation is another interesting case study. Snider added a ringer of a volunteer coach in Jim Cooney, a former player in the Baltimore Orioles organization. A longtime friend of Snider’s, Cooney worked with newcomer Jordan Adams in the offseason and showed interested in helping the Blue Jays throughout the spring.
Adams, a senior who has not played baseball since eighth grade, improved enough in the offseason that he will see innings out of the bullpen.
Senior Hunter Eutsler, another First Team All-SWCL talent, will move into the No. 1 pitching role. He went 4-3 with a 2.75 ERA as a junior.
The rest of the staff will be almost entirely made up of sophomores. Zach Garcia impressed with a 3-1 record as a freshman and will move into the No. 2 spot. Jake Twigg, Cole Langley, Sean Gilmore, and Nolan Hall should also see innings.
Junior Blaze Akins also expects to enter the starting rotation after throwing a pair of no-hitters in junior varsity last year. He will also platoon the outfield or third base depending on who is on the mound.
Those bigger roles on the rubber could play the biggest factor in Clever’s success. If the youth can start to match expectations, the Blue Jays may have as good of a shot at sectionals as anyone.
“Our upperclassmen know that how we go depends on how the younger kids do on the mound,” said Snider. “Our defense up the middle returns everything. Our offense will be better than it was last year. The big question mark is on the mound.”