By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Mountain Grove has ruled its district roost for the last half-decade. The Panthers have been nearly untouchable in the South Central Association, producing a state championship and five straight district titles in that time frame.
A steady overlap of All-State caliber talent is the primary reason for that success. Now, for the first time in years, Derwin McGownd has the majority of his positions up for grabs. Offseason workouts have been largely occupied by freshman that could compete for regular starting time later this spring.
“We’ve been blessed these last five years with the talented kids that have come through. They’ve known the game inside and out.” said McGownd. “This year is definitely going to be a challenge. We have two or three kids with any varsity experience. Still, most of the kids have been in the program and know what the expectations are.”
The Panthers went 19-7 last spring, outscoring their district opponents 28-7 before falling to South Callaway in the Class 3 sectional round. That squad produced a pair of All-State honorees: Connor McNew and Cade Coffman, both of which are out the door. Hayden Newberry, Bailey Linton, and Raleigh Wakefield also leave sizable gaps after All-SCA campaigns.
Only five players are back with any varsity experience. John Felkner and Rhett Wakefield are the returning starters and also All-SCA honorees, having manned the backstop and outfield, respectively, in 2018. Felkner, a senior, returns a team-high 36 RBI and 31 hits. Rhett Wakefield brings a team-high .365 average into his junior campaign with 23 hits, 14 RBI, and eight stolen bases last year.
Dawson Hiler will become a primary starter in the infield after serving as a pinch runner for his junior season. He and fellow senior Joseph Collins will be near the top of the pitching rotation after combining for two wins and three losses on the bump in 2018.
More than anything, McGownd believes these names have witnessed or been a part of enough success that they will carry on the tendencies that have produced success.
“These seniors worked a lot with those kids that graduated and saw thaw their work ethic was,” he said. ‘That work ethic got them to the postseason. I can see that same thing in these kids that are coming.”
Newcomer Garen Vaughn could immediately find himself as the ace of the Panthers staff. The son of former Plato coach Mark Vaughn, the senior earned All-Frisco League honors last spring with a 7-0 record. He carried a 1.78 ERA through that effort and has the most starting experience of anyone heading into the year.
“I’m excited to have him. I’ve seen him play and he’s a go-getter and a hustler. We term them ‘dirtbags’ because he’s down and dirty.”
Run production could be the biggest question mark as the season gets underway. There are too many untested pieces for McGownd to know exactly how potent the Panthers could become. That could be the key to Mountain Grove maintaining its stranglehold on the district scene.
“What are we going to do at the plate whenever we’re one run down with a runner at third? Are we going to be able to score that run? I’ve always have those kids that can step up and get a base hit. This year, I’m not sure yet where that’s going to come from.”