By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The Neosho baseball team played in a lot of close games last spring. Most ended up as losses.
Head coach Danny Powers hopes this is the season the Wildcats turn the corner, in his fourth year at the helm.
“We lost two or three conference games in extra innings,” he said. “We’ve been very, very close to having a breakout season. This being my fourth year, I’ve had a lot of these seniors since they’ve been freshmen and juniors have been in my program the whole time. I think we all understand our expectations, to come out on top and be competitive in our conference and put ourselves in position to win a district championship.”
Neosho went 12-13 last season and lost 2-0 in the district semifinals to Carthage. The Wildcats played in eight one-run games and lost six of them.
Powers returns five or six starters from that team, but did suffer a key loss to graduation in Hank Selig, the team’s starting shortstop and a second team all-conference pitcher.
Neosho only has one player returning who threw a significant amount of innings last year, right hander Jared Stephens. The senior has signed with State Fair Community College.
“I think we’ll be a little thinner as far as pitching,” Powers said.
“Jared Stephens was one of our best arms for sure last season,” he said. “He’s got a nice frame, he’s 6-3 or 6-4. His fastball can get to the mid-80’s. We’re hoping more consistently in the upper 80’s this year. He has good command of at least three pitches and he knows how to pitch. He does a good job keeping hitters off balance.”
He’ll be joined in the rotation by left hander Mason Ray, another senior.
“He can be a little bit crafty from the left side,” Powers said. “He throws a lot of strikes.”
Junior Gage Kelley could earn a spot in the rotation; he didn’t make any starts last season but he did throw some in relief. Junior Weston Durman made a few starts last year in conference games and could also pitch in the rotation.
“Defensively right now he’s probably our best shot to be our shortstop,” Powers said. “He’s a very intelligent ballplayer, has a good arm and good hands. Hopefully we utilize that arm strength on the mound a little bit.”
Rounding out the pitching staff are seniors Kaden King and Cole Seward. King pitched a lot last season and will see a lot of varsity time on the mound once again. Seward will likely be the team’s primary relief pitcher, a role he served in last year.
Powers said his team’s infield and outfield could be among the best in the Central Ozarks Conference.
King, who has played on the infield since he was a freshman, can play second, shortstop or third. He became a sort of defensive specialist for the Wildcats last spring.
Senior Brett Cook returns as the team’s designated hitter and will also play first or third. He has signed with Northwest Missouri State as a corner infielder. He was second on the team last year in RBI’s and doubles.
“He has done a lot of work in the summer and offseason,” Powers said. “His swing looks pretty good. He’s one of our power guys and should hit in the middle of the lineup and drive in a lot of runs for us.”
Senior A.C. Marion returns after starting last year as both a catcher and a utility player. He also was a designated hitter at times.
“He was a good stick in the middle of our lineup,” Powers said. “He led our team in RBI’s last year. Throws right, hits from the left. We expect him to provide some leadership.”
Seward mainly played second base last year after moving to Neosho from Diamond. He immediately stepped in and became a team leader.
“He’s a very knowledgeable player, very competitive,” Powers said. “He closed a lot of games for us last year in the tight moments. Usually hit in the one or two spot for us and always found a way to get on base or get a big hit when we needed it.”
With Durman likely to start at shortstop, King and Seward could also see time there.
The pitchers Stephens and Ray could also see time at first base, or in the outfield. Stephens led the team in batting average last year by hitting around .350.
Stephens and Ray, when they’re not pitching, will play either first base or in the outfield. Stephens led the team in batting average last year by hitting around .350.
Junior Gage Kelley, quarterback of the football team, will probably start in center field. He’s got good speed and is a very athletic player.
“Last year as a sophomore he just wasn’t quite there physically to play enough at the varsity level,” Powers said. “He’s gotten bigger, stronger, and faster. I look for him to have a big year in the outfield for us as well.”
Senior Tre’Von Letts could serve as DH, but Powers wants to find him a place in the field. The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder has signed with Central Missouri to play defensive end. He spent a lot of time last year as a DH for the Wildcats.
“He was kind of streaky last year,” Powers said. “He’d get real hot, go 8-for-8 then have a big o-fer streak. He’s a big kid and he’s really fast. He’s got a lot of power. If we can harness his athleticism and get him more consistency at the plate, he could be a factor somewhere.”
Another player with power who would play his way into the lineup is junior Zane Persinger. He placed second at 220 pounds at the state wrestling tournament. Last year in junior varsity baseball he clubbed four home runs.
“He’s somebody that if he can get hot and hit we’ll have to find him a spot,” Powers said. “He plays a little third base. I know he used to catch. We might look to stick him behind the plate.”
Defensively, the team’s biggest question mark is catcher. Kaden Endicott earned the starting job there late last season but transferred to Pierce City.
“We have some guys who are athletic and I think can fill the position,” Powers said. “That’s going to be probably our biggest question mark is who’s going to catch behind the plate for us.”
Powers said the team’s strength is its speed and defense.
“Normally I’d say pitching and defense but we have a couple guys who need to prove themselves a little more at the varsity level before we can hang our hat on our pitching,” he said. “We know we have a good number one in Jared Stephens and honestly offensively I think we’re going to be much improved. We’ve had some good hitters come through but really one-through-nine we’ll be a good team that a good pitcher’s going to have to work really hard to keep us at bay.”