By Kary Booher (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
He’s one of the deans of the high school baseball season, with 35 years of coaching, including 24 as the baseball coach of Ava High School.
So when Rex Sawyer called last year a “building year,” people nodded, figuring it was a motivational tactic. But perhaps it was also a bit of a head fake, as the Bears went out and constructed a 16-6 record, including 7-0 in the South Central Association, and reached a Class 3 district championship game.
Ava could be just as competitive again this season, given Sawyer has nine returning lettermen – including four returning starters.
“I’ve got more depth than I’ve ever had – both on the hill and at the field positions,” said Sawyer, who is 307-193 at Ava. “Some of the young ones haven’t played ball with me yet, so we’ll see what happens.”
The returning lettermen are seniors Tom Emerich and Caleb Johnson, juniors Carter Campbell, Kayden Meyers and Blake King and sophomores Zack Miller, Payton Evans, Brice Dodson and Zach Mendel.
Emerich, Johnson and Campbell were full-time starters last year.
Emerich had 32 hits, including nine doubles, a triple and home run. He accounted for 14 RBI and 26 stolen bases.
He earned first team all-district and first team all-conference and has signed with Crowder College. Emerich not only is the team’s leadoff man but can be a utility, too, although Sawyer anticipates he may anchor shortstop this season.
“He loves and lives the game,” Sawyer said.
The team’s ace, Johnson was 8-1 with two saves and a 1.75 earned run average. He also bats third in the lineup and had 21 hits, 16 RBI and 24 stolen bases. That earned him first team all-district and all-conference honors.
However, Johnson could move from shortstop, a position he has manned the past three years, to catcher when not pitching.
“I’ve got to have somebody who can run it,” Sawyer said. “He’s a player, and he can play any position.”
Campbell had 20 hits, 13 RBI and six steals a year ago, when he shared time in left field. He’ll be asked to do more pitching.
“Every spot is open,” Sawyer said. “Even though we’ve got people coming back, we’ve got younger people trying to break into the lineup. Emerich and Johnson did when they were young.”
Meanwhile, look for Myers and King to make a run for more playing time after getting a taste of corner outfield roles a year ago. Myers’ has an interesting bat, and King showed good defensive skills.
This year’s sophomores were part of the largest freshmen group Sawyer has ever had, and a few saw varsity time.
Miller shared some time in right field last year and has an explosive bat. Evans spotted up at second base, while Dodson gained experience as a pitcher and third baseman – and could move to first base. Mendel also will compete for the first base job as well after contributing 13 hits and 11 RBI.
King, Miller, Evans and Dodson combined for 24 hits and 13 RBI last season.
The team’s newcomers include sophomore Colton Marler along with freshmen Spencer Skyles, Zach Richards, Andrew Dalton, Corey Heinlein and Reece Adams. Marler and Adams are catchers. Skyles and Dalton are outfielders, Richards is an infielder. Heinlein could see time at various positions.
All this comes after the Bears got great mileage out of Aaron Everett and Wyatt Gastineau but now is looking for guys to step up.
After all, they were both all-district and all-conference, with Everett a catcher and Gastineau an outfielder. They hit .386 and .367 combined with a combined 43 hits and 26 RBI, with Gastineau also stealing 16 bags. Everett signed with Evangel University.
Sawyer is assisted by Kenneth James and Weston Loftin.
“It’s going to a lot of hard work,” Sawyer said of the team settling in. “We’re probably going to take our licks early. But if we stay together, we could be right there playing for a district championship.”