By Kary Booher/For OzarksSportsZone.com
At the end of last season, as they packed their bags in the first-base dugout at Tom Greenwade Field in Willard, coach Ryan Schaffitzel and the Hillcrest Hornets baseball team had every reason to stay positive.
Sure, the Class 5 District 10 championship had slipped through their grasp after Willard rallied for a 5-4 win. But what had been projected as a down year instead finished respectably, with the Hornets ending with a 15-15 record.
It’s fueled the fire ever since.
“They’re excited about it,” Schaffitzel said of the 2017 season. “That’s half the battle – they want to be good. This year, I think they’re going to be a little more comfortable than last year.”
Tradition-rich Hillcrest lost only two players to graduation last year, so the look ahead seems encouraging.
What truly may help is the depth in the pitching staff, given the new state rule on pitching counts. For instance, seniors and juniors now are allowed only a maximum of 105 pitches on one day and then must take a four-day rest. For those who throw 61 to 75 pitches, it’s three days of rest and so forth.
For Hillcrest, it may take some creativity. But consider a staff of Devin Ryan, Brett Letterman, Thomas Barrett, Devin McCullough and Kyle Johannsen.
Barrett threw a team-most 61 innings last season and finished with a 2.98 earned run average and 6-3 record. He earned All-District and second team All-Ozark Conference. Letterman threw 52.1 innings last year and finished with a 2.81 ERA, second behind Ryan’s team-best 2.71 ERA. The three combined for 96 strikeouts, with Ryan also earning all-conference honorable mention at pitcher and second team all-conference as a utility man.
Johannsen then had a breakout summer season after throwing only 3.1 innings in the high school season.
This for a pitching staff to be overseen by Byron Hagler, a 2015 Missouri Sports Hall of Fame inductee who was highly successful years ago at Licking and Hillcrest and then as Drury University’s pitching coach.
“If he throws like he did last summer, he’s going to help us a lot,” Schaffitzel said of Johannsen. “For all of them, it boils down to throwing strikes. If you go 3-2 on everybody, you’re looking at throwing only two innings.”
The lineup could be led by Ryan and Brant Schaffitzel, a second team All-State selection infielder, plus All-Ozark Conference, All-District and O-Zone honorable mention.
Ryan hit .283 last year, finishing with 11 RBIs and 19 runs scored. Schaffitzel hit a team-best .433 and scored 22 runs, tied for the team lead with since-graduated Tanner Ryan. Look for Haden Parton, a second team all-conference selection, also to be a factor, given he had the same number of RBIs as runs scored (14) and had 30 hits, second behind Schaffitzel’s team-best 39 hits.
“Offensively, we are going to swing it as well as we ever have,” said Coach Schaffitzel, who is 99-140 at Hillcrest. “We are senior-heavy (eight seniors). Probably most of them but one started or played quite a bit last year, so we like our chances.”
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Other notables include Kameron Grant, Dustin Irvine, Devin McCullough, Josh Horned as well as bench players Tanner Cassity, Brandon Ross, Caden Morrow, Jordan Wallace, Brock Schaffitzel and Grant Morris.
The Hornets will be back in Class 5 District 10, which includes Springfield Central, Lebanon, Rolla, Waynesville and Willard.
“Everybody keeps talking about how many guys we have back and what Willard lost, but I don’t know if that matters,” Coach Schaffitzel said. “We were five outs away from winning it last year. Hopefully, those guys are just ready to buy-in.”