By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Nixa head coach Jason Daugherty should be getting used to managing brand new lineups by now.
Set to begin his second year with the Eagles, Daugherty will oversee a complete overhaul after losing seven starters and nine lettermen to graduation.
Brett Hammit, Ryan Murphy, Payton Hannah, Stephen Belcher, Jack Sanders, Jordan Hall, Connor Matthews, Caleb Turner and Mason Gideon all depart a Nixa program that went 23-7 in 2018 and tied for a share of the Central Ozarks Conference championship with Webb City and Ozark.
Nixa fell to Glendale in the district semifinal round.
Hammitt will play for Nebraska this season. The 2018 COC Player of the Year finished his senior campaign batting .446 with 6 home runs, 24 RBI and 12 stolen bases.
“It will be hard for one person to completely replace Brett’s offensive production,” Daugherty said. “He had the threat of going deep every time he was up, and thus, drew a lot of walks.”
Murphy (Southwest Baptist), Hannah (Drury) and Ramey (Ecclesia College) will also continue their baseball careers at the next level.
Despite the graduation losses, Daugherty has high expectations for this season’s squad, which will be anchored by a trio of returning starters.
Junior catcher Joe Reid (.351 BA, 18 RBI), senior outfielder Hunter Crabtree (.306 BA, 8 RBI, 2 SB) and senior third baseman/pitcher Kinsen Michael (.291 BA, 12 RBI) return to provide leadership and stability to the Eagle lineup.
“Kinsen has the potential to be one of our best all-around players,” Daugherty said. “He could be a big part of our lineup and an important piece on the mound. I need him to have a big year.”
Other returning lettermen include seniors Krew Schmitt (.286 BA, 2 RBI, 2 SB), Ryan Cram (2-2, 4.05 ERA), Jake Uber (2-0, 1.46 ERA), Devon Roach (.231 BA, 3 RBI, 1 SB), Hayden Lock and Isaiah Engleman, along with sophomore Isaac Mitchell.
While the lineup will look completely different from last season’s squad, Daugherty believes Nixa’s offense will still provide plenty of punch.
“We graduated a lot of good bats, but I still think we will be able to swing it a little,” Daugherty said. “Plus, I think we will be able to do some other things better than what we were able to do last year. Our pitching staff is deep, so if someone isn’t getting it done, we will have somebody else ready to step in.”
The new lineup also opens the door for a number of varsity newcomers to make potential impacts this season.
Those players include a trio of seniors in Bryant Avery, Tanner Chapman and Brandon Teter; juniors Sal Scalise, Braydon Leggett, Ace Akers, Evann Long, Jake Jost and Caleb Crockett; and sophomore Alek Johnson.
With a balanced roster full of similar skill sets, Daugherty will be in a position to ride hot bats in the lineup.
“Obviously, it will be hard to replace the individual offensive numbers from some of last year’s seniors,” Daugherty said. “Our lineup may look different from game to game. As much as I would like to have some consistency, I have a lot of similar players, so it may come down to who is having good at bats. Defense should also be solid, but my best defenders are not always my best offensive players, so I will have to make some decisions in that regard.”
For Nixa to be successful, it must navigate an always-challenging COC schedule featuring the likes of Ozark, Willard and Webb City.
Daugherty feels Nixa’s pitching depth should have the team poised to compete on a nightly basis.
“Our biggest strength is probably our pitching depth; however, I think we will be fairly well-rounded,” Daugherty said. “I think most of our pitchers will pound the zone, so as long as we can play lock-down defense, we should be able to limit our runs allowed.”
Daugherty believes the number of quality pitchers on the schedule will provide a quick test for a team that hopes to maneuver itself into postseason contention.
“Our biggest challenges this year will be some of the pitching we will see from other teams,” Daugherty said. “There are some really good pitchers in the area, so we will have to figure out a way to score against them. Sloppy swing mechanics aren’t going to get it done against those guys, so we definitely need to clean some stuff up.”
Nixa opens the regular season March 16 in the Lael Lead-Off Tournament against Republic.