By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
To say that Justin Snider is excited about his 2018 squad would not do it justice.
Clever brings back all nine starters, including seven All-SWCL honorees, to mix with one of the most talented batch of underclassmen to come through the program in recent memory.
“This is probably the most committed group of kids I have had since our final four years in 2011 and 2012,” Snider said.
The Blue Jays were bounced in the first round of districts to finish 10-11, but managed to pepper postseason awards lists with juniors and sophomores. Five sophomores and two freshmen started nearly every game in 2017.
The inexperience bit them in crunch time. Clever took leads into the sixth or seventh inning in seven of their 11 losses before coming up on the wrong end.
“We played like freshmen and sophomores at times last season and it showed. We blew leads to really good teams, but we did have leads. Take that with a grain of salt. This summer, the kids started finishing games.”
A committed offseason, one where the entire lineup grew physically, mixed with a 21-5 fall campaign has created a buzz going into the spring. Two of those fall defeats came against Oklahoma teams that ended up in the final four (Oklahoma issues fall state baseball titles).
Junior Logan Peebles was the best all-around performer for Clever last spring; an all-conference and all-district selection after racking up 19 RBI and a .290 batting average. He is drawing interest from some mid-major Division I teams and Snider believes his stock will only increase.
“He may be one of the best catchers in the area that people don’t know about,” Snider said. “He was a .300 hitter last year and didn’t do anything too special. Then, he goes and plays in St. Louis over the summer, suddenly he comes back and looks like a man.”
Senior Colby Elrod returns to the outfield after receiving an honorable mention for All-State in Class 3. He boasts a .339 average with 20 hits and 17 RBI.
Calin Springer (P/OF) missed out on joining Elrod on that All-State list by only a few votes. He will platoon the outfield as well and could see some mound work after boosting his velocity to the mid-80s in MPH this offseason.
Junior Trace Comer will man center field to round out the trio.
In the infield, Nathan King returns at shortstop after an honorable mention all-conference selection.
Freshman Quinn Gundelfinger impressed with a breakout fall campaign, helping Clever turn more double plays at second base than it had last spring and fall combined. At only 5’5″ and roughly 120 pounds, Snider says his mind for the game is miles ahead of his physical stature right now.
“I may be forced to move him up to the leadoff spot. His baseball IQ is far beyond his age. Defensively, he may be the best player to come through Clever in a long time.”
Tanner Bradshaw, also a freshman, could push for starts or designated hitter reps based on his talent at the plate.
Senior Tyler Depee was the ace of the pitching staff last spring but missed the entire fall after suffering a knee injury in the jamboree. He has been throwing since December but is still working his way back to full strength.
Junior Hunter Eutsler may push for the top spot in the rotation after filling in for the injured Depee this fall. He went 8-1 with a 0.79 ERA while displaying an increase in velocity that he spent the offseason honing with his pitching coach.
Senior Cameron Garcia will also play a key role in the pitching staff, but the slots behind him look like more of an unanswered question. His brother, Zach, along with fellow freshman Jake Twigg, may vie for innings.
“We have really good depth and good competition. I was a little concerned how that would be given that our freshman class is extremely class, but it’s really helped us. The kids have not backed down from challenges.”
That younger crop will give Clever a different look in some spots, but the Blue Jays know almost exactly what they have to work with in 2018. Maturity and fundamentals will be the key to pushing back into the state tournament.
“Our district is brutal. We could have four or five teams with 15-20 wins. Our kids have worked their tails off and they have goals of getting back to state. I do think the winner of our district will end up in the final four.”