By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
While every program hopes to be better than its previous year, Aurora faces quite the daunting task in 2019.
The Houn’ Dawg seniors capped a run that included three-straight trips to the final four, back-to-back Class 4 state championships, a new state record for strikeouts in a season (382, which broke Aurora’s 2017 mark) and the first player in school history to be drafted by a major league baseball club in Wyatt Sparks.
For head coach James Hoffman, Aurora’s recent run of success all starts with a business-like approach to the game.
“The thing that really sticks out the most is their business like approach to practice and games,” Hoffman said. “These are/were high school kids. Needless to say, many are hard to motivate and lack focus, but they had one goal and that was to win baseball games. What made them so special was their commitment to team — They were great teammates!”
Aurora’s departed senior class includes six key starters in Wyatt Sparks (MLB – Texas Rangers), Matthew Miller (Missouri Southern State University), Jeremiah Fisher (Northern Arkansas College), Austin Erickson (Park University), Blake Williams (Park University) and Cody Childress.
More importantly, the Houn’ Dawgs lose a quartet of all-state selections in Sparks (11-1, .974 ERA), Miller (.394 BA, 42 RBI, 12 SB), Fisher (.371 BA, 33 hits, 33 SB) and Erickson (9-0, .933 ERA).
Not surprisingly, the optimistic Hoffman views the team’s turnover as an opportunity.
“Losing four all-staters obviously isn’t want any coach wants to have happen but I look at it as more opportunity for some of our other guys who have been waiting for their shot and to take on those roles vacated by graduation,” Hoffman said. “The message to our new guys will be the same thing we’ve preached for the last several years, show up to get better every day, be a great teammate and do these things with a business like attitude.”
Hoffman’s first task will be reloading one of the area’s most dominant pitching staffs.
“Our pitching staff may not be as deep as it has been in the past but we are confident that they will develop throughout the year and put us in a good place for the end of the year,” Hoffman said. “These guys have worked side by side with some really good pitchers and have seen first hand what it takes to be successful.”
Senior shortstop/pitcher and all-state selection Gage Singer (4-0, .824 ERA, .478 BA, 40 RBI, 6 HR, 7 SB) will anchor the team both on the mound and at the plate.
“Gage is probably one of the top players in the area,” Hoffman said. “He has lead us in virtually every offensive category the last two years. This year, we will depend on him to shoulder a big portion of the workload on the mound. Last year he didn’t have to throw a lot, but when he did it was pretty impressive (32 innings pitched and 70 strikeouts).
Junior catcher Ryan Cline (.211, 20 hits, 12 SB) also returns to the starting lineup.
Other varsity returnees include junior pitcher/infielder Jay Lee (.216, 16 hits, 3 SB), sophomore utility player Carson Bar and senior outfielder Austin Hartwigsen.
Newcomers to the Aurora varsity roster include senior Brady Ray, sophomore Clayton Reed, sophomore Dalton Cline, sophomore Kannon Hall, freshman Aaron Fisher, freshman Jaesik Friggle and freshman Trey Mulholland.
While the Dawgs’ lineup will feature plenty of new faces, Hoffman believes an overall familiarity with the team’s work ethic will help ease the transition.
“We have kids that know our system and know what it takes to compete at a high level coming back,” Hoffman said. “It is just a matter of putting it all into action. Our goal, just like it has been the last several years is to be better than we were the day before.”
Hoffman has high expectations for the season as Aurora moves into dual-division play within the Big 8 Conference; however, he also realizes player development can be somewhat of a wild card at times.
“In dealing with high school kids you never know what you are going to get from one year to the next,” Hoffman said. “You see kids who come out of nowhere and surprise you, kids that are really promising as a freshman but just don’t develop and kids that are consistently better each year. Fortunately, we’ve had some of those kids that get better every single year and we hope that continues to be the case.”
Aurora opens its season March 15 in the Bolivar Tournament. The Houn’ Dawgs face Clinton and Bolivar in double-header action.