By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
In head coach Jake Stevenson’s first year at the helm, the Carl Junction baseball team featured at least three freshmen and four sophomores playing in varsity games.
A year later, Stevenson hopes that experience will help the Bulldogs improve on a 12-17 record a year ago.
“We had a lot of young guys who hadn’t really seen varsity pitching and a lot of coaches would agree the COC is loaded with pitching so if you have guys without a ton of experience at the varsity level it’s going to be a transition,” Stevenson said. “We hope the experience those guys gained last year and over the summer helps prepare them for the season.”
Carl Junction won five of seven games to finish the 2018 season, and advanced to the second round of the district tournament.
The Bulldogs return six starters and 10 lettermen, but also must replace a first team All-Conference utility player in Dawson Fenix, who batted .383 with nine doubles and 28 RBI’s.
Only two of the team’s returning lettermen batted above .300 last season.
“We’ll need to pitch and defend well and we’ll need to be able to gather and scratch across some runs anyway necessary,” Stevenson said.
“We’ll just need to be a scrappy team at the plate, put the ball in play and limit strikeouts.”
While there are question marks offensively, the Bulldogs do return a lot of pitching and defense.
Sophomore Alex Baker went 4-4 as a freshman on the mound, pitching to a 4.64 ERA. Sophomore Carson Johnson had a 2.25 ERA. Sophomore Drew Beyer had a 3.00 ERA. Senior Jeremiah Kennedy was 3-5 with a 2.59 ERA and senior Tyler Benefiel had a 3.78 ERA.
“On the mound we have some guys back that have gotten very good varsity innings for us,” Stevenson said. “I think we’ll be experienced there. I think defensively we’ll be able to compete at a high level.”
Kennedy, who will pitch at Missouri Southern next year, and Benefiel figure to occupy the top two spots in the starting rotation. Baker will also be a starter. In addition to Beyer and Johnson, sophomore Dylan Eck and senior Denver Doran could pitch some innings.
“Jeremiah is a tall righty, 6-3 or so, with a loose arm,” Stevenson said. “He has a good arm. He attacks fastball well and can mix in a curveball for a strike. He has really developed a changeup in the offseason as well. He loves baseball, that’s his sport. He’s dedicated to his craft. He’s reliable. He’s a kid who’s going to be on time if not early on a daily basis.”
Benefiel is the only left-hander of the bunch.
The pitching staff will throw to senior catcher Dalton Honey, who possesses a strong arm.
“He’s a confident kid and he’ll handle the pitching staff well,” Stevenson said.
At third base, Johnson will play when he’s not pitching.
“He did a great job in the field as a freshman and was very trustworthy at third base,” Stevenson said. “Can’t say we’ve had a lot of freshmen step into a role like that before. We’re fortunate he’s a sophomore. He’s got a good glove, I’d say that’s his best asset.”
Kennedy will man shortstop, where he also is a strong thrower. He’s got a good baseball IQ, Stevenson said, and he batted .272 last year.
Beyer will play second base after turning in an impressive summer in 2018. He wasn’t a full-time starter last spring but saw varsity time at second.
First base remains a question mark, with several players in contention for playing time there. Cooper Cook is a junior who started at designated hitter last season and batted .253 with 14 RBI’s. He played every single game. Junior Jackson Huffman and Dylan Eck will also see time on the infield, especially with multiple infielders also pitching.
Returning in the outfield is Benefiel, who was a first-team all-conference player last year. He batted .379 with two home runs, 36 hits and 18 RBI’s. He was second on the team in average and is the highest-returning average on the roster. He’ll play right field.
Other players in the mix for outfield spots are Baker, junior Garret Taylor, senior Max Medley, senior Denver Doran, sophomore Cole Stewart and Dylan Sims.
Taylor is among the team’s most athletic players and possesses good speed. Doran and Stewart also have good speed and Stewart could serve as a pinch runner. Sims only recently moved to Carl Junction; his father, Jeff Sims, was hired in November as the head football coach at Missouri Southern.
“We’ve got a tough schedule, no doubt about it,” Stevenson said. “The COC is a very tough conference. I’m excited to see how our team handles adversity and accepts new challenges in front of them.”