By Kary Booher (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Last May, coach Gavin Morris was in the opposite dugout when the Walnut Grove High School baseball team won a district championship.
Now look who’s their field boss.
Morris takes over the Tigers this season and does so with 17 on the roster, including five returning starters from last year’s 19-6 team whose season ended in the sectionals.
“I’m really excited about this opportunity,” said Morris, a 2016 graduate of Bolivar High School who coached Lockwood last season. “We have a lot of guys coming up, and I’m just really excited to see how well we mesh together in the field.”
Among the returning starters are three who garnered postseason honors: junior Zach Henja and sophomores Michael Stogsdill and Gavin Fortner. Henja was a Class 1 All-State honorable mention infielder, and he earned all-district and All-Polk County League with Stogsdill and Fortner.
Those three, along with senior A.J. Ortiz and sophomore Cody Keith, are likely the team’s key pitchers this year.
“If they’ve got an arm, they’re throwing,” Morris said.
The projected lineup likely will have Stogsdill at shortstop, Ortiz in center field, Fortner at catcher, Henja at first base, Keith, senior Braden Patterson at third base, Smith at second or the outfield, and a number of outfield options: seniors Riley Gavisk and Hunter Deckard, junior Juan Hernando, sophomores Lane Holman, Miguel Najera, Brian Yoon and Clayton Morlen.
Stoggsdill’s and Ortiz’s speed should make for the ideal, traditional table-setters for Walnut Grove.
The big bat in the lineup could be Henja, who is batting clean-up.
“We have a lot of guys who can make contact and some who can pop off,” Morris said. “I see (Henja) having a lot of power. He’ll definitely give us that lift with power.”
That said, Fortner could play a subtle but important role. He could be slotted in at No. 3 in the order but also will handle catching duties.
“We’re looking to get a lot of production out of him,” Morris said. “And being a catcher, he can provide leadership. He’s a good athlete. He’s improved back there on receiving the ball. And he’s very coachable.”
Patterson also should bring some leadership, considering he’s a senior.
Smith may become a sleeper type for the Tigers.
“Cody will pitch a lot of innings,” Morris said. “And I know he’s going to be a good utility player for us.”
“He makes plays on balls hit in the gaps and moves well to cover a lot of area as well as being a consistent hitter at the plate,” Morris said.
The roster includes freshmen Dylan Russell (first base), Jordan McClatchey (third base) and Tre’von Sopkowiak (outfield).
While Morris is young himself, he does come from a good baseball tradition in Bolivar, whose coaches – Brad Roweton and Brian Thompson – have been supportive. Morris didn’t play in college but did umpire games.
Now he’s leading a program that was only two runs away last year from reaching the state quarterfinals and in 2018 reached the Final Four.
“They’ve given great advice anytime I’ve had questions,” Morris said. “And it’s been that way with other coaches I’ve interacted with.”