By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
As head coach Danny Penn puts it, last year was “tough.”
The Nevada baseball team, one year after winning a district championship, dropped to 3-19 last spring in what Penn knew would be a transition year.
“I don’t think we envisioned it being as rough as it was but we just really struggled to put together complete games,” he said. “One game we’d swing it really well but we’d struggle to throw strikes and play good defense and the next day we’d hold our opponent to two or three runs but we couldn’t score any ourselves. We just got snakebitten by some bad baseball luck here and there. When it was all said and done our record was not very pretty.”
One bright side to 2019’s struggles was the amount of playing time available a lot of different players. The Tigers played a number of sophomores and even a few freshmen. When those underclassmen struggled, Penn reminded them that in an ideal situation they’d still be playing at the junior varsity level.
“We understood the struggles they went through last year were going to pay off in the future so we’re hopeful that turns out to be the case this year,” he said.
Nevada lost three players to graduation including Jayden Ast, an honorable mention all-conference outfielder in the Big 8 West. He was a .262 hitter who stole nine bases.
The Tigers do return as many as five or six players who started last season, and another three or four who got varsity playing time and could see a significant number of innings.
Returning starters include senior Grant Miller, a second-team all-conference outfielder and honorable mention pitcher; junior Blake Pryor, a catcher; junior Elijah Nadurata, an honorable mention Big 8 outfielder who will also pitch; and junior brothers Lane and Logan McNeley. Lane was second team Big 8 infielder and Logan is another infielder who will also pitch.
Miller batted .309 last year with 14 RBI’s and five doubles. On the mound he went 2-3 with a 3.15 ERA. Pryor was a .196 hitter who drove in seven runs and Nadurata was a .255 hitter with six RBI’s. Lane McNeley hit .317 and drove in four and Logan hit .145 with four RBI’s.
A couple other varsity players remain undecided.
“I think the lumps and struggles they took last year are hopefully going to have them better prepared this year to have an idea of the level of play they’re going to face and what it’s going to take to be successful,” Penn said. “All those guys have played a lot of baseball in their childhood so it just becomes a matter of working hard and putting the little things together. Grant is someone looking to play at the next level. I think Blake has an opportunity to play at the next level in a couple years. We just have to find the right combination of nine or 10 guys who are going to be solid and make the routine plays defensively, put together good at bats and throw strikes on the mound.”
Penn is optimistic the team’s defense will be pretty good, though he isn’t yet sure who’s going to play where, exactly. The coaching staff is prepared to be flexible as it shuffles players around to find the best spots for them.
Newcomers to the varsity lineup could include junior Lane Wilson, an outfielder and pitcher; junior Drake Seaver, an infielder and pitcher; sophomore Caleb Stanley on the infield; sophomore Eli Cheaney on the infield and at pitcher; sophomore Kartman Highley on the infield and mound; and freshman Case Sanderson, an outfielder and pitcher.
Miller will anchor the pitching staff, and two others would join him in the rotation if they decide to play. Naturada will also be asked to pitch, as will Seaver.
One of the biggest question marks for Penn is how the team bounces back from last season.
“Do we come back hungry and motivated to make sure we don’t have another season like that which is what I’m hoping for, or does the bad taste from last year carry over which would obviously be what we don’t want,” he said. “Just seeing how these guys react. It’s always tough with 16, 17, 18-year-old young men to know how they’re going to react in every situation. We feel good about how we think this season’s going to go but that’s a question mark we can’t entirely answer right now.”