By Amanda Perkins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The Willow Springs Bears went .500 in 2018 for the first time in more than a decade. Cabool upset them in district play to end their season at 11-11. The Bears lost a core group of players who led them to their newfound success, but in his third year as head coach, Dustin Forrest looks to build on returning talent for a fruitful season.
Graduation was unkind to the Bears, taking a vital chunk of their lineup. Dakota McDaniel was named to the all-conference team for four years, and the athletic starter was a mainstay in the Bears’ lineup. Josh Rutledge (all-conference honorable mention starting shortstop), third baseman Weston Willbanks (now playing at Culver-Stockton), Andy Davies at centerfield, and Caleb Wood were each vital contributors to the team who will be missed this season.
Two players have emerged as new leaders for the team.
“Trey Talbert and Caleb Solik are two of our seniors and they are the two we are really going to look to for leadership,” said Coach Forrest. “Trey has been our go-to guy since he was a freshman, so there really isn’t much he hasn’t been through on the field for us. Solik is a guy who has worked his butt off for four years, and I think this year is going to crack the lineup for us. I have two guys like this with views from both sides of the spectrum, which gives all our other players a great example they can follow.”
Talbert was a producer for the Bears last year with a .407 average and 24 RBIs. The four-year starter made the all-conference first team as well as the all-district team and will anchor the pitching staff and bat in the three spot, also playing some middle infield. “He’s the heart of the team with a career average above .300,” his coach said.
Grant Kelley is also a senior who made the second team all-SCA as a DH and took home a .393 average. Coach Forrest said he is patient and works the count at the plate and isn’t afraid to hit deep in the count. He is anticipated to help production in the middle of the lineup.
Junior Carson Lowe transfers from the outfield to the open shortstop position and will start on the mound.
Jon Baker is a junior utility player who will be seen in the outfield and on the mound. “Jon is going to be a vital part in our success,” said Coach Forrest. He had a 1.05 ERA last season and will hit in the top of the lineup.
Brady Walton rounds out the returning junior class. He played catcher at the varsity level for the first time last year and is ready to produce in the lineup and limit the opponent’s base stealing.
“Brady’s ability to handle the running game and block the ball really helps take some stress off our pitchers,” said Coach Forrest.
Kyle Wood led off last year and played right field, and the athletic sophomore put up a .295 average as a frosh. He will wreak havoc on the basepaths and will log innings on the mound.
New faces on the field include senior Caleb Solik at third base, junior Wesley Picard (competing for infield spot), and senior Josh Porter (possibly late inning defensive relief).
“Graduating a larger group of seniors last year that had started their whole careers means most of the guys now have been waiting for their chance,” said Coach Forrest. “I’m really anxious for these guys to get that chance this year and show what they can do. I think we can compete in our conference this year and hope we are playing our best baseball come district time and are able to make a run into the post season.”
The Bears open their season at the Sparta baseball classic on March 15.