By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Ozark head coach Mike Essick has been through plenty of changes in his 24 years with the program.
After a 19-9 campaign ended with a district semifinal loss to Kickapoo, Essick now looks to replace seven graduated starters for the 2019 season.
“Last year’s team had very good camaraderie,” Essick said. “They were a lot of fun to be around, as well as to coach.”
All-state pitcher Forest Barnes (Missouri State University), Parker Hanks (Northwestern University) and Cade Little (College of the Ozarks) top a list of players who will continue their respective careers in college.
Replacing Barnes (8-1, 1.48 ERA) and Hanks (4-2, 1.87), in particular, will be challenging. The duo anchored Ozark’s pitching rotation and provided leadership and experience within a veteran lineup.
Chuck Hill, Curt Gracey, Easton Hanks, Preston Sundlie and Jake Harmon also bid farewell to the program.
While the graduates leave behind a number of holes in the lineup, Ozark does return a trio of senior starters in catcher Carson Shaver (.371 BA, 37 RBI, 5 HR), shortstop/pitcher Blake Mozley (.417 BA, 23 RBI, 11 SB) and pitcher Dylan Frandsen (2-2, 4.30 ERA).
Frandsen will step into the vacated role at the top of Ozark’s pitching rotation.
“It’s [Frandsen’s] turn now to anchor the pitching staff,” Essick said. “He will also get a chance to hit in the middle of the lineup.”
With a number of open spots on the roster, Essick expects a host of varsity newcomers to step in and challenge for playing time, including a quintet of seniors in outfielder Brantly Harrill, infielder/pitcher Jarrett Engel, infielder Chandler Hodges, first baseman Braden McAllister and pitcher/outfielder Drew Marshall.
Five juniors will also help round out Ozarks lineup, including outfielder/pitcher Jake Skaggs, pitcher Riley Sundlie, pitcher/infielder Carson O’Brien, outfielder Seth Glossip and infielder Eric Scott.
“This will be a very solid, talented, tight knit group of guys, with a lot of depth,” Essick said. “This also could possibly be one of the most well rounded teams we have had in years.”
Despite losing a quality 1-2 punch in Barnes and Hanks, Ozark’s pitching staff should be well stocked with quality arms this season, according to Essick.
“This year’s pitching staff should be as deep as any we’ve had,” Essick said. “We did get hit hard by graduation, so this group will be a little inexperienced to start the year. If the top end guys in our rotation continue to improve as the year progresses, we have a chance to be very good by the postseason.”
For Ozark to challenge in the postseason, it will have to survive one of the most difficult districts in the state with Kickapoo, Glendale and arch-rival Nixa in the field.
“Our district is loaded with big-time college talent,” Essick said. “Your team has to be awfully good and deep to win that thing. We will strive to do things right day in and day out, and continue to foster a climate and culture that not only develops good players, but good individuals as well.”
Ozark opens its season March 15 with a double-header against Lawrence Free State, KS, and Poplar Bluff.