By Justin Sampson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Lebanon charged out of the gates with a 13-2 start to the 2018 season, but found itself face-to-face with some of the state’s top teams down the stretch.
The Yellowjackets suffered losses to the likes of Nixa, Willard, and Glendale before finishing the year 18-8 with a first-round exit in districts.
All-Ozark Conference honorees Keaton Winfrey, Cole McBride, and Wyatt Milliken are out the door, but there is still plenty in tow. Head coach Dustin Young has provided younger talent with plenty of innings and he expects that to start paying off.
“We’ve been young for a couple years now,” he said. “We’ve got a big junior class, so to see them develop over their freshman, sophomore, and now their junior years has been really rewarding.”
The most experience can be found in the pitching rotation, where the Yellowjackets return 73 percent of their innings from 2018. The group is fueled by that aforementioned hefty junior class and led by double All-Ozark Conference selection Troy Reynolds. His strengths on the mound became more apparent in the latter part of his sophomore year as he nabbed five wins in seven starts. He racked up team highs in strikeouts (51) and innings pitched (35.2) with a 2.55 ERA.
Tyler Paul and Tyler Graham will bolster the staff after they each earned 20-plus innings as sophomores. Paul carried a spotless 4-0 record through 2018 with a team low 2.33 ERA. Graham nabbed 11 strikeouts with a 2.96 ERA in 23.2 frames.
Dakotah Evans, Kane Buckley, and Hagen Smith add to that group of juniors and should all see their workloads increase. Young said they have earned that responsibility through their offseason regiments.
“We can never have too many arms. Guys really buy in to that,” he said. “There is a lot of potential for playing time at the varsity level. They stay hungry in the weight room, constantly trying to improve, and we’re really starting to see that now.”
Offensively, senior Jayton Cromer also enters the season on the backs of All-OC honors as he sported a .333 batting average while manning the infield defense.
Paul brings back the team lead in RBI (28) and average (.366), while Reynolds will also be counted on to produce runs after racking up 21 last year.
“We will feature a lot of depth. We will be able to different plug guys in to different situations and have some success.”
While the talent is padded at some position, Young continues to foster the atmosphere of competition. There are innings to be earned and young talent poised to make a run at them.
“It’s a completely different game at the varsity level,” he said. “The game is faster and you have to be more fine with your pitching. We have guys that are hungry and ready to step up to take those roles.”
Lebanon remains one of the most consistent programs in the Ozark Conference but is still searching for its first district championship since 2013. Fielding the ball could be the biggest question mark entering the season and may hold the key to a breakthrough.
“Defense was an Achilles heel last year. A lot of that comes from people being out of position. Some were in positions they weren’t accustomed to because we had to get bats into the lineup. With the experience, I think the defense will be much better. With what we’ve got coming back, if we take care of defense we’ll be alright.”