By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Webb City ended last season with a surprising district semifinal loss as a No. 1 seed to No. 4 seed Joplin. It snapped a streak of three consecutive district titles.
The Cardinals return a strong group of players but do have some big holes to fill. The biggest loss to graduation was Tyler Martin, a first team All-State pick and Co-Pitcher of the Year in the Central Ozark Conference after posting an 8-0 record. He’s one of three All-Conference players the Cardinals must replace this year, along with first team outfielder Matt Duley, who also pitched, and second team outfielder Will Larson.
“When you have guys like that on the mound you don’t really replace those guys you just hope you can find another guy to step in and fill those shoes,” Highfill said.
Duley was the team’s No. 2 starting pitcher, and Larson probably posted the highest batting average of any COC hitter, Highfill said.
The Cardinals aren’t short on returning experience, though. Webb City returns three all-conference players, including Beason, a senior who earned first team recognition as an infielder last year. He’ll be at third base when he’s not pitching.
“He will be one of the better guys in the conference,” Highfill said. “Any time he gets on the mound he gives us a good shot of winning. He was 4-2 last year, 3-1 in conference and we’re hoping he’ll expand on that. At the plate he was somewhere around a .430 batting average. He’s our three-hole hitter. That’s pretty good production from the middle of our lineup out of him.”
Jacob Monroe and Bryson Matthews both earned second team All-COC honors in the infield last year. Monroe, a senior, will start in right field after hitting close to .400 last year. He’ll also factor into the starting rotation.
Matthews, a senior, will fill a utility role this year. In addition to serving as designated hitter, he’ll probably play third base when Beason’s starting and right field when Monroe’s pitching. He’s signed to play baseball at William Woods.
Highfill also returns starting experience in left field, at shortstop and at catcher. Senior Manuel Peskar started in left last year and batted leadoff. He and Monroe each stole 21 bases.
“Honestly he was a guy I felt should have gotten some conference recognition,” Highfill said. “He was the catalyst that got us going. Had a remarkable year. He’s gotten bigger and stronger this year so I’m expecting a lot out of him.”
Senior Zach Biastock returns at shortstop after a “great” year defensively for the Cardinals.
Junior Kade Hicks will start at catcher; he caught the middle of the season last year when the team’s senior catcher was injured.
“Our expectations for him this year are really high because of what we saw as a sophomore out of him,” Highfill said. “We expect a lot out of him offensively and defensively.”
That leaves openings on the right side of the infield and in center field.
Junior Cale McCallister has a shot to start at first base after a strong junior varsity season and a good summer. He could also factor into the rotation as a left-handed pitcher.
Four players are in contention to start at second base: junior Dillon Harlen and sophomores Cole Gayman, Treghan Parker and Shane Noel.
“Those guys will all hopefully have an impact for us this year,” Highfill said. “Trying to replace two senior starters that were really good for us last year, we need some of those younger guys to contribute a little bit.”
In center field the Cardinals could have something special with sophomore Devrin Weathers, who had a strong football season as a running back. He’ll probably be the team’s leadoff hitter this season.
“People in the area are going to know his name within the next two or three years,” Highfill said. “He’s one of those special athletes and as a coach you relish the time you get to coach those kind of guys. We’re excited about his level of play and he’s gotten a lot better this offseason. At the JV level he batted .600 last year.”
Filling out the pitching staff are Alex Bass and Draydon Emery, both seniors. The 6-foot-1 Bass will serve again as the team’s closer. He’s also signed with Washburn to continue his career next season. Emery, who is 6-foot-2, has signed with North Arkansas College. He’ll be counted on to get tough outs out of the bullpen.
Junior Wyatt Hodson could work his way into a starting role on the mound. Highfill said he was impressive last summer.
As the Cardinals hope to avoid another letdown in a one-and-done situation, Highfill said the overall goal remains the same.
“Our goal every year is to play in June,” he said. “We don’t relinquish that goal just because we’ve lost guys. Every other school in the state loses guys at the end of the season. We’ve got good athletes that love baseball. We still expect to come out and win every day. That expectation will never change as long as I’m at Webb City. Our main goal is to win the district and find a way to advance past the sectional and find our way into the final four. That’s always going to be the goal here.”
The Cardinals haven’t advanced past the sectional since 2010, when they reached the state title game. Highfill, in his third year at the helm, hopes to change that.