By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
When production leaves, the chance for new competition and playing time arrives.
That’s the scenario for Kickapoo baseball this spring. The Chiefs are retooling their lineup with many first-time varsity players.
“The key for us will be our returning players taking a leadership role and competing each pitch regardless of the outcome of the previous pitch,” said Chiefs coach Jason Howser. “We have several players that will compete at the varsity level for the first time.”
The Chiefs have won 20 or more games each season dating back to 2014, including district titles in 2018 and 2017 and a final four appearance in 2015.
Senior Will Bailey returns as Kickapoo’s most experienced hitter and pitcher.
On the mound, he was second team all-conference after going 6-1 with a 2.20 ERA. He hit .277 with 17 RBIs and four doubles. He has the most varsity at-bats of Kickapoo’s returning players.
“We’ll lean heavily on his steady leadership,” Howser said. “His bat will also be a big factor for us.”
Fellow seniors Chase Kruse (shortstop) and Joey Morris (outfield) are also returning starters.
Morris had a breakout junior season and earned all-conference honors with a .278 batting average, 14 RBIs and nine steals. He will also pitch more often for the Chiefs this season, Howser said.
Kruse brings an excellent defensive presence to the field. Like Morris, Kruse will also see more innings on the mound.
“Chase is as good defensively as anyone in the area,” Howser said. “He’s a hard worker and sets the tone for our infielders. Great leader.”
Senior Chase Tolleson is competing for playing time in the outfield and out of the bullpen.
Zach McKinnis (utility), Boone Shevey (pitcher/catcher) and Luke Quackenbush (P/infield) are returning juniors with varsity experience.
McKinnis went 3-3 with a 3.60 ERA last season and played multiple roles for the Chiefs.
“We’ll count upon him as a starter this year,” Howser said. “He can command the strike zone with multiple pitches. He loves to compete and we’ll need that mindset this spring.”
Shevey and Quackenbush will also split time between the mound and field.
Other names contending for playing time include seniors Jeb Jarman (catcher), Garrett Frey (first base) and Jacob Martin (pitcher/utility).
Kickapoo will have additional depth and starting options with a big junior class. The other juniors are: Drew Turner (infield), Ayden Fetters (infield), Rhett Hendricks (outfield), Kevin Ward (outfield), Mason Burdick (pitcher), Erik Broyles (pitcher) and Carter Vienhage (outfield).
“One thing that should help us late in the season is the constant competition for playing time in practice and games,” Howser said.
A pair of underclassmen will contend for varsity playtime: sophomores Noah Wilkinson and Cross Kubik.
“Noah will be asked to be versatile this season; he can catch, play the infield and is a great competitor,” Howser said. “Cross will compete for innings out of the bullpen and could see some at-bats as well.”
The Chiefs come off another 20-win season.
Kickapoo finished 20-11 overall last season, losing to Nixa in extra innings in the Class 5 District 10 Tournament semifinals.
The Chiefs graduated a strong, eight-player senior class from that team.
Mason Auer, a first team all-state pitcher, now plays at Missouri State. He leaves a big production void on the mound, in the outfield and at the plate.
The Chiefs graduated additional starters in Gus Bauer (catcher), Jacob Murrell (outfield), Easton Bentch (first base), David Senn (pitcher/DH) and reliever Aaron Sawchak.
Bauer was one of the team’s top bats and provided leadership behind the plate. Murrell led the team in RBIs. Bentch provided solid defense at first base.
On the mound, Senn was Kickapoo’s No. 2 starter behind Auer while Sawchak was Kickapoo’s go-to reliever in high-leverage situations.
Also graduated are Ray Bailey (OF) and Matt Burris (utility).
“For our returning players, the ability to compete on the mound, make the routine play defensively and not give at-bats away will determine the direction our team goes,” Howser said.
The Chiefs will be down a potential starter in junior Garrett Bauer, who moved with his family to Utah after last season. Garrett, the younger brother of Gus, was second on the team in RBIs last season.
“His top-side ability is very high and his athleticism will be missed,” Howser said.
Kickapoo opens the regular season March 20-23 at the Troy-Buchanan Tournament.
“We want to compete each pitch of each at-bat, whether it’s at the plate or in the field,” Howser said. “This is a gritty group who should be fun to coach and be around.”