How many times have you seen it when a team loaded with talent somehow doesn’t mesh? Or when a starless team lacks depth and yet manages to surprise everybody?
At Hillcrest High School, baseball coach Ryan Schaffitzel is wondering if his Hornets are the latter team in that scenario.
“It seems like they like to hang out with each other. Over spring break, they were at somebody’s house,” said Schaffitzel, who is in his 10th season at Hillcrest. “They get along pretty well, which is going to help.”
Now comes the hard part – can the Hornets turn their camaraderie into sound baseball, especially in pitching and defense in a season when the offense will be more National League-like small ball?
The team’s performance in a recent jamboree on March 15 suggested that it is possible. A pitching staff lacking seniors – but with nice depth – yielded only two runs in nine innings.
Even more notable, veteran baseball coach Byron Hagler is helping coach the pitchers. The 2015 Missouri Sports Hall of Fame inductee spent several years as pitching coach at Drury University after tremendous success at Hillcrest and, before then, at Licking High School.
Under his watchful eye are pitchers Devin Ryan, Thomas Barrett, left-handers Kamron Grant, Kyle Johnson and sophomores Brett Letterman, Devin McCullough and Brandon Ross. Plus, Josh Horned is up from JV to handle the catching duties.
“We were pleased because they could throw more than one pitch in the strike zone,” Schaffitzel said, referring to the jamboree. “If they can do that, we’ll be happy.”
Baird was a starter last year, and Ryan threw mostly on JV and spent the offseason tinkering with new deliveries. One is similar to that of Los Angeles Dodgers Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, whose got the high leg lift and then a funky leg jerk-and-pause motion. Thing is, it worked in the jamboree, as Ryan struck out four of six batters he faced.
“He’s been watching a lot of television apparently,” Schaffitzel said. “His deception is his strength.”
The jamboree was a sign that perhaps Hillcrest, despite finishing 8-20, made the most of last season when the Hornets went into triage mode after losing their top two returning starters. And keep in mind that, of Hillcrest’s few wins last year, one was to Class 5 third-place finisher Kickapoo and others against Rogersville, Branson and Rolla.
That said, given the youth of the pitching staff, Hillcrest needs a solid, defensive catcher. Horned could do the job.
“He’s a good defensive catcher,” Schaffitzel said. “That’s going to help the young pitchers when they bury the curveball. But he doesn’t have a lot of (varsity) experience.”
The other test will come in front of Horned as Hillcrest will need to rely on sound defense. The team’s offense isn’t projected to be a run-scoring machine.
“It’s really hard to score runs without getting help, with a walk or error,” Schaffitzel said. “We talk all the time about making the other team beat themselves and not us beating ourselves. We’re not overly talented by any means. But we have a bunch of kids who understand the game.”
The lineup may be a work in progress early in the season, although the top of half of the order projects to have Kameron Grant at leadoff, followed by Brant Schaffitzel, Tanner Ryan and then either Devin Ryan or Devin McCullough. Jack Morris, a senior, also is in the mix.
Tanner Ryan, the team’s shortstop, spent the offense trying to enhance his swing. The goal – more power.
“He changed a lot of things,” Schaffitzel said. “He always wanted to hit the ball a long way. He just didn’t understand how to do it. He’s always had some pop. But he has to learn not to strike out as much.”
Brant Schaffitzel had a .495 on-base percentage last year.
“He takes a lot of pitches. And he’s like his dad – he’s not going to knock any walls down,” the coach said.
McCullough and Letterman could provide some power, too, for Hillcrest, which is mixing and matching a handful of other names in the lower half of the lineup. They include Thomas Barrett, Letterman, Dustin Irvine and Haden Parton. Irvine could play third, and the team has several options for first baseman/designated hitter.
“We really like these guys,” Schaffitzel said of the overall team. “We’ve got a bunch of guys who really like baseball. If we can replicate what we did in the jamboree, it’s going to be fun."
Coach: Ryan Schaffitzel (10th season)
Roster: Devin Ryan, Brett Letterman, Josh Horned, Brandon Ross, Thomas Barrett, Dustin Irvine, Haden Parton, Tanner Ryan, Hunter Sullivan, Brock Schaffitzel, Tanner Cassity, Jack Morris, Jeff Lewis, Jordan Wallace, Gavin Hinds, Kyle Johannsen, Caden Morrow, Devin McCullough, Brant Schaffitzel, Caleb Wiseman, Grant Morris, Brian German, Alex Jaco, Dayton Highfill, Brendan Weaver, Karmon Grant.