By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The first year of the Kyle Wolf regime at Joplin was a pretty typical one.
It took some time for the new coach to get used to his players, and for those players to get used to him.
“I felt like we really established some of the cultural things we wanted to do and formed a bit of an identity,” Wolf said. “From that standpoint I thought it was a very productive first season.”
Wolf, who previously spent 12 years as an assistant at Pittsburg, Kan. powerhouse St. Mary’s Colgan, appears to have the Eagles on an upward trajectory. After losing nine of 10 games at one point last spring, Joplin went on to play for a district championship after upsetting Webb City in the Class 5 District 12 semifinals. The Eagles finished 13-17.
“We went through a spell early in the year where we just really struggled to win some close games,” Wolf said. “We were in a lot of baseball games and couldn’t finish them. Towards the end of the year we started to fall into our own a little bit. We really had some big wins in the second half of the year.”
Joplin must replace Jake Yarnall, an honorable mention All-Ozark Conference outfielder who served as the team’s leadoff hitter for three years. Wolf said he was a plus defender who also stole 32 bases.
On the mound the team loses Quinn Goettel, who pitched in a lot of high-pressure situations.
Both are playing baseball in college.
Fortunately for Wolf and the Eagles, the team returns virtually everyone else. Wolf said that includes seven starters, though not all of those started the whole year last spring.
The list of returners includes Josh Wells and Grant Jones, who earned all-conference honors last season. Wells, a senior this spring, was a second-team all-conference pitcher after going 4-3 with a 1.89 ERA. Jones, also a senior, was an honorable mention infielder.
“Josh will be an integral part both in the lineup and on the pitcher’s mound,” Wolf said. “He’s a plus defensive infielder. To be honest he might be one of the best defensive third basemen I’ve coached. At the plate he’s a guy who just competes. He finds a way to get on base. I think he’s in line to maybe set a school record for hit by pitches. He’ll do whatever it takes to get himself on base. On the mound he’s not going to awe you with electric stuff but he competes in the zone, he throws strikes, tries to work fast and put pressure on the hitter to beat him.”
Jones, the starting shortstop, is the team’s most-accomplished retuning hitter. Batting third, he posted a .398 average last year with 33 hits, 18 RBI’s and 21 stolen bases. He also went 3-0 on the mound with a 2.89 ERA. He has signed to play at Fort Scott Community College.
“He’s a ballplayer,” Wolf said. “He has a little bit of swagger about him. Because of that it’s nice to have him in that captain of the infield role at shortstop. He does a good job of leading us and communicating with other players and holding guys accountable.”
Wolf said he also progressed well as a pitcher last season, and he and Wells will headline the team’s rotation this spring. They’ll be joined there by junior Zech Stayton, who has good velocity and had a good showing in summer ball.
The Eagles also return the rest of the infield.
Senior Maurice Auberry is back at first base after earning the starting job there midway through the 2018 season. Wolf rated him as a solid defender with the potential to hit in the middle of the lineup.
Two players are in contention for the starting second base job. The first is junior Cade Carlson, who earned a starting job halfway through last season.
“He probably loves baseball more than anybody I’ve got,” Wolf said.
The other is senior Blake Dean, who could potentially move to the outfield.
“He’s a guy that needs to be on the field for us,” Wolf said. “A great leader. He’s got a lot of speed, he can handle the bat at the plate and he’s a really flexible defensive player.”
Behind the plate the team returns full-time starter Luke Benfield, a junior who managed to steal a dozen bases. Wolf said he’s not a prototypical catcher.
“He doesn’t have great size but he’s extremely fast and he’s probably more of an outfielder than he is a catcher,” he said. “He is a very, very good receiver. Very good blocker, very athletic behind the plate and our pitchers love throwing to him. It’s hard to take him out from that spot because he does such a nice job for us.”
He didn’t hit for much average last year, but drew 23 walks and was hit by five pitches to post a .463 on-base percentage.
In the outfield the team returns right field starter Tyler Ledford, a junior who batted .328 with seven doubles. He’s another player who moved into a starting role in the middle of last season after taking advantage of some pinch-hit opportunities.
“He took advantage and really had a great year for us,” Wolf said. “He was very productive for us.”
That leaves at least one opening in the outfield, and senior Logan Irvin could be the player to fill it. He didn’t get a lot of varsity time last season but had a great offseason and could be a threat on the bases.
Senior Luke Kuehnel should see time on the mound after earning All-State honors as a linebacker during the football season. Wolf said he could be the team’s high-leverage guy. He also serves as backup catcher.
Other pitchers include Ledford, the right fielder, who has “tremendous stuff.” His cousin, junior Holden Ledford, will also compete for a spot in the outfield and could see time on the mound. He’s a lefty with a deceptive delivery. Junior Carlos Maturino figures to be a utility player and could pitch.
The team’s final senior, Ashton Riley, plays first base and will have a chance to be the team’s designated hitter.
One question mark is what kind of offensive team the Eagles will be. Joplin stole 108 bases in 30 games last season, in part because the team was trying to be aggressive, but also because it became necessary.
“I’m hoping maybe we have a little more offensive punch and we don’t have to steal as many bases this year,” Wolf said. “If we can get to second with a double we don’t have to steal it. Our team speed is a strength.”
Joplin will begin competing in the Central Ozark Conference this season, but the schedule hasn’t changed much. The team has maintained old Ozark Conference rivalries with the likes of Glendale and Kickapoo, and will see Parkview and Hillcrest on some Saturdays. Joplin has always played COC teams like Webb City, Carl Junction, Neosho and Carthage.
One change will be less travel team, meaning more classroom time.
A highlight of Joplin’s schedule will be an April 18 game at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City against Vandenberg Village, California’s Cabrillo High School. The game was made possible by Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Danny Duffy.
“I got an email from Danny Duffy one day this fall,” Wolf said. “I kind of thought it was one of my friends playing a trick on me. I called him back and he’s bringing his alma mater from California to the area and they’re going to play some regional teams in Kansas City at a variety of different ballparks. It just so happened the date he needed was the game at Kauffman Stadium. We’re extremely grateful to Danny and obviously it’s going to be just a really fun thing for our kids and our program to be able to participate in that.”