By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Simply put, this could be Willard’s best team yet.
And that’s saying something, because the Tigers were really good last year and have been among the state’s top programs for nearly a decade.
The Tigers return eight starters and their top four pitchers from a team that went 30-7 overall and reached the Class 5 final four last season.
“Our position-player group is deep and talented, and our pitching depth has looked good this winter,” said Willard coach Scott McGee. “We have a group of seniors that pull for each other and put the team first. Our team chemistry is very strong and our goal is to make it back to the final four this year.”
Willard returns four all-state players to its lineup.
Senior and Mizzou signee Garrett Rice (3B/SS/P) provides a powerful bat and has become an all-around player for the Tigers. He hit .347 with six homers, 40 runs, 35 RBIs and 16 steals.
On the mound, he was 3-3 with three saves and a .210 ERA and 54 strikeouts.
“Garrett is a complete hitter and is now a very solid defender as well,” McGee said. “He is a great competitor, and we rely on him and (Grant) Harris in our biggest moments. He is upper 80s off the mound and has a good changeup and curveball.”
Senior catcher Cole Biellier played a major role in Willard’s record-setting pitching performances last spring. He also hit .375 with three homers and 30 RBIs.
“He is the top catcher in the area and a key reason we broke the team ERA record last season,” McGee said.
Few – if any – players in the state had a better postseason than Willard centerfielder Ethan Thompson.
The third of Willard’s three first team all-state returnees, Thompson hit .359 with three homers, 50 runs, 30 RBIs and 24 steals during his junior season. He has signed to play at Missouri Southern.
“He came through over and over for us in the postseason,” McGee said. “He is a good defender in center and has power and speed at the plate.”
McGee described Grant Harris (SS/P) as the team’s most versatile player. Harris was second team all-state a year ago and has also signed to play at Missouri Southern.
On the mound, Harris went 5-0 with a 1.91 ERA and 54 strikeouts. He also hit .325 with 45 runs, 27 RBIs and 10 steals.
“Grant is a leader on and off the field,” McGee said. “He has a bright future in this game and will have an outstanding senior season. He has reached 91 mph off the mound and throws strikes with a plus curveball.”
Willard’s deep senior class includes five other players with starting experience.
Reece Dawson (1B) and Rhett Anderson (3B/IF) return in the infield. Dawson is a Missouri State football signee (quarterback) who’s looking to bounce back from a subpar offensive season. He hit over .300 as a sophomore.
Anderson will split time between the infield and outfield.
“Rhett’s a good hitter and plays his hardest at all times,” McGee said.
Tyler Harre (DH) hit .352 with 42 RBIs last season.
“He’s a big-time run producer in the middle of our order,” McGee said. “He uses all fields and has good plate discipline.”
The pitching staff features a pair of Division II signees in Garrett Hunter (Central Missouri) and Eli Stoops (Lindenwood).
Hunter was 5-2 with a 2.10 ERA last season. Stoops went 6-1 with a 1.39 ERA.
“Garrett attacks hitters with an upper 80s to low 90s fastball and a hard curveball,” McGee said. “He has made great progress this offseason.
“Eli mixes three pitches, topping at 87 mph off the mound. He has a very good changeup and works at his craft every day.”
Junior Blake Hultgren (2B) earned varsity playing time as a sophomore after battling through injuries early in the season. He finished with a .439 on-base percentage.
Willard graduated three players with starting experience in Noah Wooldridge (OF/C; Missouri S&T), Jacob Van Doren (OF) and Devin Custer (P).
“Noah had some big moments for us, hit in the middle of the lineup and was a good defender in right,” McGee said. “Jacob was a great teammate who got on a base lot for the bottom of our order. Devin had a great senior season and won five games and threw a lot of innings.”
Willard has had a stretch of remarkable consistency.
The Tigers have won 22 or more games in eight of the past nine seasons. They’ve won six district titles and made three final four appearances in that span.
Willard’s 30 wins in 2019 set a single-season program record. The Tigers enter this season ranked No. 1 in Class 5 in the MaxPreps preseason poll.
Other names to watch include seniors Ian Poulson (C) and Garrett Martin (OF), junior Dalen Stewart (P) and sophomore Kade Biellier (OF/P).
“Ian will get at-bats as a catcher/DH and pinch-hitter,” McGee said. “He’s really developed since last season. Martin battled injuries last year but is a good defender with power and speed at the plate.”
Stewart gives Willard a left-handed pitching option and throws mid-80s with a good curveball. Biellier is another lefty who could earn playing time at the plate or on the mound for what should be a stacked Willard lineup.
“Our offense will be very strong,” McGee said. “We have power and speed and good plate discipline. This is a very strong defensive infield as well.”
Willard opens the season March 21 at Columbia Hickman.