By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
As head coach Joshua Hughes put it, he’s not counting his chickens before they’ve hatched.
But Hughes sees the makings of another good Purdy baseball team this spring, one that will be tasked with defending last year’s district title.
“I pride ourselves and our kids pride themselves on playing the game the right way,” Hughes said. “We’re going to be hard nosed. One of my favorite sayings is put your nose in the middle of it. We’re going to get hit by pitches. We’re going to take extra bases. We’re going to do our jobs. I’m really excited about this group because they’ve really bought into this.”
The Eagles have won district championships in three of the last four seasons, beating Pierce City 6-5 in extra innings last year for the Class 2 District 12 crown. Purdy lost in the sectional round.
Hughes, who’s been at Purdy for 14 seasons, has guided the Eagles to 10 district championship games. He credits the town’s youth program and parents.
“You’ve got to give credit where it’s due,” he said. “They understand baseball and when they get to me I just have to manage it.”
In order to stay on top this season, the Eagles must first replace three starters lost to graduation.
“Three really good ones,” Hughes said.
Gone are Hunter Cook, Adam Humphrey and Jose Sanchez. Cook was a second team All-State infielder at shortstop and Humphrey started at third base. Sanchez served as a utility player.
The trio batted leadoff, third and fifth in the lineup last season, and Cook and Humphrey were two of the team’s top three starting pitchers.
The cupboard certainly isn’t bare, however, as Purdy returns three players who received All-State recognition last season in Carl Hughlett, Andrew Martinez and Mason Schallert.
Hughlett, now a senior, was a second team pick at catcher. Martinez, a junior, was a second team pick in the outfield. Schallert, a senior, was an honorable mention pick as a designated hitter and utility player.
“The core of our offense,” Hughes said. “We just need to replace pitching and defense.”
They batted third, fourth and sixth in the lineup during the fall baseball season, helping Purdy amass 157 RBI’s in 18 games.
Hughlett tends to warm up as the temperatures warm up, Hughes said. He was a .380 hitter last spring with three home runs.
“As the year went on he got hot and carried us toward the end of the year,” he said. “Defensively he’s maybe one of the better arms in the area.”
He proved it by throwing out more than half of the 22 would-be base stealers last fall, in an 18-game schedule.
“Spring will be a little different I’m sure with more games against bigger schools,” Hughes said. “He shuts down the running game and also does a good job at the plate.”
Martinez, Hughes said, is “as good as they come.”
He hits for power and for average all over the field with a “smooth” left-handed swing. Opposing pitchers worked around him as a sophomore batting in the three or four hole. He had four home runs and 24 RBI’s in the fall, and batted .463 last spring with 39 RBI’s.
“He’s a very quiet kid,” Hughes said. “I try to get him to be a little more vocal and that’s just not his personality.”
Schallert earned his All-State nod not just for his hitting but also for his pitching, Hughes said. He’s the only returning starter; he started last spring as the team’s third or fourth starter but was a solid number two by the end of the season. He finished with a 4-1 record with a 1.11 ERA. He went 5-1 last fall with his only loss to the Class 2 state championship team in Oklahoma.
“He pitched the semifinals in districts and he was going to pitch the quarterfinal if we won the sectional,” Hughes said. “I’m glad to have him back on the mound. We expect him to take a big step.”
He also hit nearly .361 at the plate. He drove in 27 runs in the fall.
Other returning starters include senior Kyler Propps and junior Zane Brown. Propps started at second and short last season but he’s moved to the outfield this year, a more natural position for him. Hughes said he was exceptional in right field during the fall season. He’ll also bat in the leadoff position.
“With his speed and presence at the plate, if he’s on base we’re going to score runs for sure with the power we’ve got behind him,” Hughes said.
Brown, a pitcher, had a coming out party in the district tournament. He entered the district championship game against Pierce City with the score tied in the seventh inning and proceeded to strike out the side in the seventh and again in the eighth while throwing something like 18 pitches. He appeared in nine games last spring with four starts. He struck out 42 and had an ERA of 1.18.
“He’s got a good curve ball, a good changeup,” Hughes said. “He started getting noticed last year as a sophomore. We expect big things on the mound.”
Purdy will also start four sophomores this season; they were each on the team that won the 14-under state tournament in Columbia three years ago.
That group is led by Jake Brown, the only freshman to start for the Eagles last season. He started every game in center field and will probably bat ninth this year but is good enough to be the leadoff.
The others are Andy Aldaba, Osiel Aldava and Clay Henderson.
Aldaba was recovering from a torn ACL and didn’t resume baseball activity until last April. He’ll play short stop and probably pitch as the team’s third starter.
“Great arm, good hands,” Hughes said.
Aldaba didn’t play as a freshman but came back to the sport during the fall season and was second on the team in hits, RBIs and average while batting fifth. He’ll play third base and could also pitch.
Henderson comes from a big softball family; he has two sisters who were All-State players. He’ll start at second this year and he batted second in the fall.
While the lineup has changed, so too has the schedule. Purdy has joined the Southwest Conference along with Southwest (Washburn), leaving behind the Ozark 7.
“To be honest the conference now is a little tougher, a little deeper,” he said.