By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Mansfield’s run to the 2017 State Baseball Championship was fueled by emotion, teamwork, and a high level of talent. In 2018, the Lions maintained their status as Class 2 elites.
They looked poised to repeat in O’Fallon, having already bested Hartville, survived a 15-inning classic with New Covenant Academy, and ran roughshod over Russell in a 16-4 semifinal win. However, the Lions succumbed to Valle Catholic to finish second in the state.
Four All-State selections are gone from that 20-7 squad, but there is no shortage of established players as Joe Garrison enters his second year as head coach.
“Being as blessed with success as we’ve been the last few years, we’ll continue to set high expectations for ourselves,” he said. “I’m starting six seniors, three juniors, and one freshman on occasion. I’ve got a lot of experience in this group and they continued to get better and better.”
Many coaches are happy to tell you that games are won or lost on the mound. Not every coach can lay claim to having the arms necessary to charge confidently into a campaign. Mansfield’s rotation is bolstered by experience with four seniors expected to take significant roles: Chase Wilson, Hunter Gray, Hesston Gray, and Payton Watterson.
Wilson kept spotless 6-0 record through six starts with a 1.87 ERA and 27 strikeouts last year. Watterson and Hunter Gray did not have a blemish on their win-loss record either, while Hesston Gray nearly matched Wilson with 24 strikeouts.
One junior is also in the mix: returning All-State selection Arly Miller. He compiled his own 3-0 mark in four starts, including the state semifinal, fanning 27 batters with a 1.54 ERA throughout the year.
This collection of arms reminded their coaches exactly what they could do this past fall as the Lions put together a 13-2 season.
“That showed us that one of our biggest assets is our pitching,” said Garrison. “We had a team ERA of 1.97 in 15 games. These guys showed they can provide us opportunities to stay in games every day.”
Those same names carry some of the biggest sticks in Mansfield’s lineup as well. Watterson topped the team by hitting an even .400 as a junior, while Hunter Gray drove in 15 runs with a .367 average.
Noah Mitchell, Ryan Henry, and Casey Carnall round out the seniors who are expected to produce at the plate. Carnall’s 10 RBI put him in a group of six Lions who drove in double digit runs in 2018.
Garrison added this team has some noticeably faster wheels throughout the roster, which would allow it to play more small ball this spring.
“Our team speed is probably our biggest asset. We were not a running group last year, but this group is very different. We have speed up and down the lineup that will put a lot of pressure on our opponents.”
He also stressed that it will take a village for Mansfield to maintain its success this spring. The Lions will rely on its core and not one or two players to lift the entire squad. There would be little reason to deviate from that recipe, one that has produced three consecutive state tournament berths.
“There are things we still need to work on, but overall, I’m very encouraged. We’ve got a group of guys that work hard everyday and sets high goals for themselves.”