By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
No one who made the journey from Mansfield to O’Fallon last May will soon forget the sight of the Lions posing with that familiar maroon jacket.
The Lions were the story of the 2017 baseball season as they rolled to a Class 2 State Championship mere months after the death of legendary head coach Doug Jones. They put up 49 runs in the playoffs en route to hoisting their first trophy in 22 years.
The win resonated with every resident and alumni of Mansfield High School, including Joe Garrison, a member of the first state championship in program history in 1995. Nine days earlier, the Lions had beaten Garrison and the Hartville Eagles in the Class 2 sectionals.
Now, he returns to his alma mater to lead the Lions after 16 years at Hartville.
“Any time a team was as successful as this one was and has a lot of returning starters, there is a lot of hope and optimism,” said Garrison. “We’re looking for good things this spring.”
There is no conjecture in that statement: the Lions open as the preseason No. 1 team in Class 2 and bring back seven starters, including four of their seven All-State selections.
Three of those (Spencer Greene, Devin Kingery, Crayton Henry) are four-year starters.
A first-team selection, Greene (P/SS) is the most dynamic player on the roster. He drove in five runs in the state title game in May and returns as the resident triple crown winner, having finished with .486 batting average, 31 RBI, and five home runs. He also put up a team-high 42 strikeouts and a 4-0 mark on the mound last year.
Another strong campaign could realistically put him in the top ten in program history in ten offensive categories.
“(Green) probably doesn’t even know that. He’s not worried about that stuff,” said Garrison. “He’s got talent as a hitter and at times can be our best pitcher. We will rely on him to be a vocal leader and set a tone of winning.”
Kingery (3B) was a Second Team All-State selection and will be another formidable bat after slapping 25 hits and driving in 26 runs as a junior. He and Henry (OF) combined to drive in six runs in the state championship game with the latter notching 27 RBI for the year.
Jacob Gray (1B) was also earned a Second Team nod after finishing just behind Greene with a .415 average as a junior.
Garrison has reason to like what his lineup can do, as long as that includes not trying to do too much.
“Sometimes we get greedy. We like to try to hit for power and that can bite us. Hopefully we can discipline ourselves at the plate and simply get the job done.”
Jordan Evans (P/OF) and Jacob Peak, also seniors, will play key roles on the pitching staff. Evans made just two starts last year but won both while holding a sub 1.00 ERA
Garrison said the depth of his rotation and defense allows Mansfield to avoid beating itself. If the offense shows the pop that was on display last spring, the Lions have a viable shot to return to the final four.
“Each year there is a certain amount of talent that walks out the door. You can replace talent to a degree, but you can’t replace experience. With what we’ve got coming back, we’ve got a good grasp of what it’s going to take.”