By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Willard has been a model of baseball consistency in the Ozarks over the last decade. In 2018, the Tigers reached their eighth straight district title game and notched at least 20 wins for the seventh time in that stretch.
They finished 25-7 on the heels of a 4-3 defeat by Rolla for the Class 5, District 10 Championship. They waved goodbye to a pair of All-COC First Team selections in Matthew Eleiott and Tanner Norris along with Landon Taylor, all of whom are now playing college baseball.
Still, as they are wont to do, the Tigers are loaded for another run near the top of the league.
Four pitchers and seven total starters return, and head coach Scott McGee did not mince words about the promise he has seen this offseason.
“This is the best offensive and defensive work we’ve had,” he said. “We’ve got a middle of the order with a Mizzou commit and guys that are going to play a pretty high level of baseball. The strength of our team is our ability to hit.”
Garrett Rice is that Missouri commit who enters his junior campaign as one of the state’s top-ranked players in the Class of 2020. Rice proved as a sophomore that he could be the most powerful bat in Willard’s lineup as he drove in 41 runs on 36 hits while swiping 14 bases. He also put up a formidable 4-1 record on the mound with a 2.97 ERA.
Junior Grant Harris also earned Second Team All-COC honors in 2018 and is back for more work on the mound and at shortstop. His .410 batting average leads all current Willard players, and he managed to add 17 RBI’s as a sophomore. He also kept his ERA to 2.41 while putting together a 3-1 record.
Junior Garrett Hunter and senior Devin Custer will also be vital to the rotation. McGee lauded Hunter for his hard curveball and a mid-80s fastball. He kept a spotless 4-0 mark last spring with a 2.15 ERA. Custer was 5-1 as a junior and his ability to keep calm and pound the zone should move him near the top of the staff.
It’s a staff comprised of three players that can be relied upon to live in the mid-to-upper 80s and occasionally throw 90 miles per hour. Still, the sum of their parts will be greater than any one starter that opponents may face.
“We don’t have that one lights-out guy on the mound, but we have a depth of guys that compete and attack you with their fastballs. That is their mentality,” said McGee.
Seniors Noah Woodridge and Jacob Van Doren also return to the starting lineup. Woodridge, a Missouri S&T commit, played just about every defensive position as a junior and was second behind Rice with 22 RBI from last spring.
Catcher Cole Biellier and first baseman/outfielder Reece Dawson, both juniors, round out the returning starters. The two combined for 52 hits in 2018 while driving in 20 and 19 runs, respectively.
As players always look for chips to place on their shoulder, McGee believes last year’s one-run loss in the district title game will provide just that. Willard has designs of making it back to the state tournament and making their presence felt in a stacked Class 5 field.
“The kids have made a goal of making the final four. We always just tell them to win the district, then it’s only two more games to get there. We have that forward-thinking mentality and are preparing well enough to do that.”
How close the Tigers come to achieving that goal could come down to how they respond to the day-to-day struggles of a long season.
“We’re not going to go undefeated. Our schedule doesn’t allow it and that is just how baseball is. How do you handle an 0-for-4 day when your team loses? Are you excited to get to the park the next day? Handling the ups-and-downs of the season is something that you always have to be cognizant of because the game can snowball on you quickly if your attitude gets bad.”