By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
A season-ending loss to Aurora last year had the Nevada baseball team wondering what might have been.
The Tigers won the Class 4 District 12 title – their first district championship since 2003 – but suffered a 6-5 loss in nine innings to Aurora in the sectional round. The Houn Dawgs went on to win the Class 4 state championship and completed a 32-1 season.
“I think we played about the best game we could and I was just proud of that fact,” Nevada coach Danny Penn said. “We got down early and had the resolve to come back, tie it up. It’s not a game I look back on and think if we had just done this differently, hadn’t made that error or that mistake. I was extremely proud of the effort we put forward and we gave it our best shot.”
Nevada finished 15-9.
While Penn said he hesitates to use the word rebuilding this year, he said Nevada will look like a much different team. The team graduated six seniors last year and lost more than 90 percent of the innings pitched at the varsity level. Question marks abound.
“We’ve got a lot of holes to fill defensively,” he said. “We’ve got guys who have varsity experience but in supporting roles. Not guys who have been asked to be the guy or one of the two or three guys. We’re interested in seeing who steps up and takes on those roles.”
There are three full-time starters returning: senior first baseman Peyton Denney and junior outfielders Dalton Gayman and Grant Miller. All three will also pitch.
Penn thought the 6-foot-5 left hander Gayman was going to play a big role on last year’s pitching staff before a shoulder issue kept him off the mound and in the outfield. Denney and Miller pitched a lot of innings, but mainly at the junior varsity level.
“Peyton will be a third-year starter this year,” Penn said. “He’s got a lot of experience and we’re hoping he turns into one of our leaders both on the field and vocally as well. He’s a three-sport athlete and we always support that here at Nevada. The different things he can bring from those sports on the baseball field we think can be good for us.
Penn said Gayman is a “tremendous athlete” who was great in the outfield and has worked to refine his swing last summer and this offseason. He started off last season hitting nearly .350.
“We’re optimistic he’ll have a big year for us in the outfield, on the mound and in the batter’s box,” he said.
Penn said Miller is a “gamer” who hit at the bottom of the lineup and is another strong defender in the outfield. He was a second team All-District player last year.
“He takes great routes and isn’t afraid to lay out to catch a baseball,” he said.
Senior Jayden Ast will likely fill out the outfield for the Tigers. He was mainly a defensive replacement last season but figures to get a lot more playing time this spring. Penn still needs to find a fourth outfielder to play when Gayman or Miller are pitching. On the infield, first base is settled but everything else is wide open.
“Realistically right now we’re looking at seven or eight guys for those four different spots,” Penn said. “One person today and next week it might be someone different.”
Three players are vying for the starting catcher position. Penn said the competition may last through the first few weeks of the season with the team running out different lineups to see what works.
“I feel really good about our outfield,” he said. “Our outfield’s going to be strong. I feel like if the ball’s up in the air we’re going to be able to go get it. I think the competition on the infield is hopefully going to push some guys to rise up and perform better than we’ve expected. It’s hopefully a deal where it translates to game situations.”
Other players who will be asked to pitch are seniors Logan Bradley and Ethan Couch, and sophomores Elijah Nadurata, Logan McNeley, Lane McNeley and Lane Wilson.
“It’s very likely more guys than that end up pitching,” Penn said. “Those are the ones right now I have a pretty good idea are going to throw at least a few innings for us.”
Offensively Penn must replace two players who hit over .400 last year and graduated. The other four seniors each hit above .300.
“The meat of our lineup has graduated,” he said. “It’s definitely a challenge to see how we’re going to replace that.”
With an athletic, speedy roster, Penn expects to employ some small ball to get the offense going.
Another change for the Tigers will be their schedule. Nevada is switched from the West Central Conference to the Big 8, meaning the team’s travel has shifted dramatically to the south. While the Tigers played teams like Clinton, Warrensburg, Sedalia and traveled to Kansas City last year, now they’ll be traveling to southwest Missouri.
“I think if things go right, our team at the end of the year is going to look a lot better than at the start,” Penn said. “We may have some bumps along the way but I think we’ll get better and better and hopefully we’ll peak at the end of the season at the right time.”