By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
2019 was a banner year for Clever baseball.
The 15-12 Blue Jays captured the Class 3 District 10 title, before falling to Ava in the sectional round.
Head coach Justin Snider, entering his ninth spring at the helm, was thrilled with the way his young team developed over the course of the campaign.
“We had great senior leadership, and it showed all throughout the season,” Snider said. “On any given night, we started five or six sophomores, so we needed that leadership and guidance. We had to overcome the fact that our entire pitching staff was sophomores and juniors, with only one senior getting any time on the mound.”
A quartet of graduated seniors depart the program, including catcher Logan Peebles (.515 BA, 33 RBI, 4 HR), center fielder Trace Comer (.373 BA, 18 RBI, 2 HR), shortstop Nathan King (.268 BA, 8 RBI) and pitcher Hunter Eutsler (5-4-1, 37 K, 5.612 ERA).
Peebles and Comer both received all-state honors last season, and both have continued their respective baseball careers and Mineral Area Community College and Drury University.
“Logan hit over .400 for us and led us in every major offensive category,” Snider said. “Trace hit at the top of our order and hit .373 with tremendous speed. The senior class last year was one that provided great leadership to a young team. Without the four seniors’ leadership and guidance, we would not have been where we were in winning a district title.”
While it’s never easy replacing talented seniors — let alone a pair of all-state selections — Clever has a bevy of returning talent on its roster.
Juniors Quinn Gundelfinger (SS), Jake Twigg (2B/CF/P), Tanner Bradshaw (C/DH) and Zack Garcia (P/3B/C) will lead the Blue Jays this season — all four have started since they were freshmen.
Gundelfinger — who experienced a growth spurt from 5-foot-7 and 135 lbs. last season to 5-foot-11 and 165 lbs. — hit .352 last season with 32 hits and 13 RBIs and was named all-conference and all-district.
“Quinn was a mainstay in the leadoff spot for us last year and will likely move into the 2/3 hole for us this year,” Snider said. “With his major height/weight gain has come a tremendous power increase. We look for Quinn to hold down the left side of our infield while providing us with another solid offensive year.”
Twigg hit .310 for the Blue Jays with 9 RBIs at the plate and was 4-4 with an ERA of 2.71 as a sophomore; however, during the last month of the season, Twigg’s pitching numbers reflected his development with a 3-1 record and 1.20 ERA. He received all-district honors in 2019.
“Jake was a bulldog for us last year,” Snider said. “He progressively just got better and better as the year went on and solidified himself as our No. 1 pitcher by year’s end. He is probably the best athlete in the school and will likely play a multitude of positions this year for us.”
Bradshaw hit .407 as a freshman and .330 last season as a sophomore with 21 RBIs and two home runs.
“Tanner has added a tremendous amount of strength over the past six months with his commitment in the weight room and will slide into the catcher’s role this year,” Snider said “We look for Tanner to hit in the 3/4/5 spot for us this year and provide us with another great offensive season.”
Garcia finished the season with a 4-3 record with one save, 37 strikeouts and a 3.609 ERA. He received all-district honors as a sophomore.
“Zack has been in our starting rotation since he was a freshman and, this year, he will be looked at to anchor the No. 2 spot in our rotation behind Jake,” Snider said. ‘He is another kid who has made tremendous strides in the weight room and has seen a major increase in velocity on the mound. We also look for him this year to provide us with pop in the batting order and his great glove work in the infield or behind the plate.”
Clever also returns junior first baseman Cole Langley (.269 BA, 14 RBI), senior utility/pitcher Blaze Akins (1-0, 15 K, 3.500 ERA) and pitcher/utility Nolan hall (1-0, 11 K, 2.059 ERA) to the lineup.
Newcomers to the Blue Jays’ varsity roster this season include Drew Hanafin, Corbin Allie, Dylan Thompson, Hayden Camp, Seth McGaughey, Dylan Atnip, Carson Springer and Tyler Evans.
With a host of talent and experience returning, Snider is optimistic about Clever’s chances this season.
“We have high expectations for the amount of talent returning,” Snider said. “We return a very solid five bats at the plate and our top two arms. We will need some of our younger kids to adjust quickly, as we have assembled probably the toughest schedule we have had since 2012.”
The Clever bats, according to Snider, should provide plenty of fireworks at the top of the lineup.
“The top five to six spots in our order are going to cause problems for a lot of people I believe at our level,” Snider said. “We have a great and experienced group of juniors that will hold down those spots. I look for the top of our order to provide a lot of power and pressure on defenses with their ability to hit the ball and hit it hard with good speed.”
While Clever’s offense should be able generate runs on a consistent basis, its pitching and defense will have to gel quickly in order to keep the Blue Jays in striking distance on a nightly basis.
Snider believes another postseason run is possible if the team can develop two more quality arms to lock down the No. 3 and No. 4 spots in the rotation.
“I think our best strength will be our one-two punch on the mound and great defense on the infield,” Snider said. “This group prides itself in defensive play and work on that side of the ball. We will need to figure out spots in the outfield and back end of the rotation/bullpen quickly. Again, having Jake Twigg and Zack Garcia as a one-two punch is a great asset to have, but we will need depth to make a deep run again.”
Clever opens its season at home on Friday, March 20, against Class 5 Hazelwood Timberlake.