By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Trevor Bowling felt more comfortable at this point in 2018, his first year as head coach at Walnut Grove, than the present. An experienced roster led by a Division I arm can do that.
The Tigers suffered just one regular season loss and outscored opponents 35-6 from district play to their first ever final four appearance. They finished 22-3 overall as their run ended at the hands of St. Elizabeth in the state semifinals.
A bevy of talent with postseason accolades is no longer on the roster, including Logan Thomazin, arguably the most decorated student-athlete in Walnut Grove history and now a Missouri State Bear. Fellow All-State selection Hunter Gilkey and All-Polk County League honoree Cory Countryman also left their mark in the spring and winter.
In a way, 2019 offers Bowling a much different program and coaching job than the one he inherited.
“This year, we have some returners, but they’re just going to have to be consistent,” he said. “We’ll have to start four or five underclassmen. We don’t know quite what we’ll be like yet.”
The Tigers return four players with regular starting experience, highlighted by three seniors: Jon Smith, Ryan Keith, and Dawson Meinders. Smith was an All-State Second Team selection for his work in center field and at the plate last spring. He returns the team lead in batting average (.328), hits (22), and RBI (18).
Keith was an All-PCL First Team choice after his junior campaign yielded 20 hits and 12 RBI with a .278 average. He was also a formidable pitcher and brings back a team-high five wins to one loss from 2018.
Meinders expects to return to the outfield after starting every game in left as a junior and will also likely see innings on the mound. Fellow senior Tyler Davis saw limited time on the bump last spring but still managed a pair of victories. He’ll earn more work in his final varsity season.
Zach Hejna was the breakout youngster of the 2018 campaign as he brings back a team-high 20 RBI from a freshman campaign that earned him an All-Conference nod at first base. His emergence was an example of a lesson Bowling began learning midway through last season: maximize players’ strengths.
“I found the three or four things to focus on rather than be average at a bunch of things,” he said. “Other than (Thomazin) and (Gilkey), we focused on others getting on base. Our guys bought in to getting hit by pitches. We shattered the school record. It’s a totally new team, but we’ll figure out a few things we can be good at.”
Bowling has welcomed a handful of newcomers in offseason workouts. He’s tried to maximize their time together, lifting with the students he has during class. Most are freshmen who will likely find opportunities to play and, as he stated, start.
Michael Stogsdill is expected to earn an everyday spot at shortstop or third base. Gavin Fortner is another first-year varsity player who will slot right into the heart of the lineup while manning the backstop.
Classmates Calvin Smith, Lane Holman, and Cody Keith could also vie for innings.
“I coached these freshmen last season in a summer league for the sole fact that I knew we’d have to start some of them. We’re comfortable with each other. They’re hard-working kids and whatever they’ll be like at the beginning of the season, they’ll be totally different by the end. We’ll probably go through some growing pains, but hopefully we can start to get it together before districts.”
Bowling does not plan to flip his philosophies on their head due to a change in skillset, but he will stick to his plan of playing to strengths. That could mean that Walnut Grove baseball will look different than what fans have seen over the last few seasons, but the only concern is the final result.
“If you put a lot of pressure on opponents, Class 1 defense will make mistakes. We don’t have someone who can hit a home run and get us right back in the game. We have to find ways to manufacture things on the bases.”