By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Curt Plotner learned plenty in his first season captaining the Republic Baseball program. In the Tigers’ first year without the tutelage of Howard Quigley in nearly two decades, they went 9-17 and bowed out in the first game of district play.
That loss was the seventh in Republic’s last nine games. It was a disappointing ending, especially given the Tigers had the bases loaded before falling to Joplin by two runs. However, the six losses at the end of the regular season all came to teams with winning records. The talent level of the COC Large plays a factor in that result, but Plotner feels more equipped to get his team to that plateau in 2019.
“I feel more comfortable with where the kids are,” he said. “It was new to everybody last year, but this year, when we have discussions about the way we do things, it’s not foreign to them.”
“Everyone looks at the win-loss record to gauge if we’re getting better. With our schedule, that’s hard for us to do because we play so many quality teams. Are we getting better as a program and are the kids getting better individually? We want to make sure those things happen and we hope that translates to the win-loss record.”
The Tigers return eight letterman and six starters with a year of Plotner’s coaching in their heads. Tyler Cavener, Jacob Crosswhite, Clayton Crowley, Jaden DuVall, and Blade McCroskey make up the 2019 senior class. Cavener and Crowley bring back experience on the mound, with the latter likely to assume the No. 1 role after a 3-2 campaign with a team-low 3.50 ERA.
Cavener, a Drury commit, brings back the team lead in RBI from a season ago with 15 while matching Crowley with 22 hits.
Duvall swiped a team-best eight bases as a junior and will be asked to continue that production this spring in the leadoff hitter role.
Easton Prevo and Nicholas Rose are the most experienced juniors back in the fold. Plotner already recognizes Presto as one of the top defenders he has ever coached and will slot him in to start at shortstop for the fourth straight season. Rose will play both corner infield spots and will once again be relied upon for his bat after driving in 14 runs and hitting over .300 as a sophomore.
Despite those pieces, Republic could sport different looks on a game-by-game basis. Plotner relishes the amount of competition he is expecting from this group, and he expects a stout underclassmen group will fuel it.
“We have a strong sophomore class. I could see, early on, that we’re not rolling the same lineup out there game-to-game,” he said. “Sophomores are going to push some upperclassmen. Ideally, you hope those upperclassmen respond and get on a roll. It’s exciting, but there are also a lot of unknowns when you have as many as 14-16 guys competing for spots.”
Jared Hughes leads that effort as he expects to get into the pitching mix right away. He went 2-3 in junior varsity last year with a 5.17 ERA while driving in 15 runs at the plate as a freshman.
Plotner also has high expectations for junior Luke Long after calling him perhaps the Tigers’ best player over the summer. He will compete for starts at third base and should take some innings on the mound. Fellow juniors Jordan Carter, Cole Murray, Evan Smith, and Josh Calhoon will compete for their first varsity playing time as well.
The coach feels this is the deepest pitching staff he’s been a part of coaching and feels confident in no less than five quality arms. He also believes Republic will have a diverse set of skills in its lineup that will provide some matchup advantages against any opponent.
“If we play a team with a tough lefty, we have some right-handed guys that are just as capable against off-speed stuff. I like the fact that we have options with that depth. You may not have played much all year and then there is a perfect late-game situation where we think you’re the best guy to get that job done.”
If the underclassmen lift the level of their more seasoned counterparts, it could be the boost Republic needs to get back into COC Large contention in 2019.