By Kary Booher/For OzarksSportsZone.com
Sometimes it takes a while for a new coach to adjust to his players. Fortunately for the Joplin Eagles baseball team, that shouldn’t be the case in 2017.
Kevin Burgi, promoted over the offseason after Kirk Harryman resigned to become a principal at the city’s high school, has been on staff the past three seasons.
Even better, the team figures to have 13 seniors and six of its nine starters returning from last season.
“The kids have worked really hard, so it’s made my job real easy. They realize the tradition of the Joplin program,” said Burgi, who ran the summer team. “There are only a few of them who haven’t played for me as a head coach.”
Harryman is a tough act to follow, though. In 17 seasons as Joplin’s baseball coach, he was 270-212 overall, with a 2001 state championship. The Eagles were 91-56 in the Ozark Conference in that stretch, and his teams won six conference championships and six district titles, reaching the state quarterfinals four times and state semifinals three times.
Burgi, who played his final two collegiate seasons at Missouri Southern State University, previously was an All-State selection and Louisville Slugger preseason All-American at Jonesboro, Ark.’s Valley View High.
Given his background as a catcher, that could bode well. The pitching staff features 6-foot-1 senior right-hander Spencer Swanson, 6-2 left-hander Cole Allen, lefty and Crowder College signee Austin Landis as well as senior Dillon Davis. Daulton Barnhart, Noah Jaudette and Clint Graddle also should see time on the mound.
Swanson was 5-4 with a 3.14 earned run average last season.
“(Swanson)’s got a really quick arm that’s deceptive, with a good slider and change-up,” Burgi said. “The season didn’t end the way he wanted for him, but I think that’s driven him this offseason.”
Allen, who was 2-3 with a 4.12 ERA, has committed to Longview Community College in Kansas City.
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“He has grown up in the program,” Burgi said. “He commands three pitches and is a strike thrower. He’s a guy who’s really developed since he came into the program.”
Landis should be a good innings-eater and team leader. Davis grew six inches in the past 18 months and is now a 6-3, 190-pound right-hander.
Fortunately, their catcher is senior Spencer Gibson.
“He’s really fun to coach,” Burgi said. “As much as people sometimes talk about being leaders, he is. You say something, and he gets it. He manages a staff incredibly well. He knows when to get in a guy’s face and when to be their friend.”
The projected lineup has junior outfielder Jake Yarnell at leadoff, followed by Landis in center, Gavin Merriman at shortstop, Dylan Parker at third, Cole Allen, Gibson, Swanson or Grant Jones at second base, Harrison Davis at first base and Gaudette. Joey Biggs and Casey Sade also are expected to see time.
“Yarnell is a quick guy and saw a lot of varsity time last year,” Burgi said. “And he’s a smart kid that is able to put the ball in play.”
Parker is one of the better hitters, with Landis a run-producer and Merriman a key hitter, too. The trio combined for 51 RBI last season.
Joplin finished 16-15 last year and lost in the second round of the district tournament to Webb City. The two could meet again in the Class 5 District 12 Tournament, which also features Carthage, McDonald County, Neosho and Republic.
“We definitely have strong leaders,” Burgi said. “On the mound, that’ll be our strength. The question is where we can score runs for them.”