By Pat Dailey (For OzarkSportsZone.com)
Going on his 23rd season at Salem as either a Tigers assistant or their head coach, Phillip Karr feels he has every reason to be optimistic his hitters are in for much-needed upgrades at the plate.
“We don’t change a whole lot and have drills in our practices that have proven to be effective,” Karr said. “We tend to have most of our players consistently improve. We have a lot of kids who didn’t have good batting averages who will have to pick it up offensively. We’re hoping the kids who hit .219 or .240 last year can hit over .300 now. That’s what we’ve got to hope to do in order to be successful.”
Salem endured 11 games last season in which the Tigers scored three runs or fewer. They were 3-8 in those contests.
Salem, which was 12-11 overall, welcomes back five everyday starters and a starting pitcher.
Returning starters include senior catcher Silas Wulff, senior first baseman Theron Southworth, sophomore second baseman Garrett Connell, senior left fielder Dawson Conway, senior center fielder Reese Dodson and junior pitcher Kody Crocker.
Part-time starters back are infielder Eli Wethy and designated hitter Baylor Tetty.
That group thrived in South Central Association Conference play last season, as Salem finished second to league champion Ava.
“A lot of people thought we would win only four or five games,” Karr said. “We ended up going 6-1 in the conference. We were also runner-up in our district. We exceeded expectations.”
Dodson, who was an All-SCA First-Team selection last season, figures to remain an integral part of the Tigers’ defense, but may be on the move to the infield to fill a void at shortstop.
“We’re hoping if we have to move Dodson to shortstop, sophomore Korben Barred can handle center field,” Karr said. “He’s a good defensive player.”
Jimmy Barton, who led Salem’s jayvee in hitting last year, is a top candidate to land a starting job in the outfield.
Wulff, an All-SCA Third-Team selection a year ago, will handle a pitching staff primarily made up of hurlers looking to prove themselves.
Salem lost to graduation pitches who accounted for seven of the team’s 12 wins last season. Crocker and Connell should lead the staff. Connell had an injury-plagued season a year ago, but his arm has bounced back. In the fall, he started at quarterback for the Tigers’ football team.
“They both are primarily fastball pitchers,” Karr said of Crocker and Connell. “They go after hitters aggressively. That’s what we like to do. The most pitches Connell (threw) last year was 65. He’s a tough kid. We’re looking for him to throw a lot more innings this year.
“We will need to have some other kids step up and pitch who have never pitched at the varsity level. Asking a sophomore who was a jayvee pitcher last year to pitch against Class 4 schools is not easy. You hope they want the ball. You’ve got to want the ball in your hands. You won’t have much success if you don’t believe in yourself.”
The plan is for Salem to be battle-tested come May. The Tigers have made dramatic changes to their tournaments slate. They will be playing in the Four Rivers Classic in Sikeston to open the season, take part in the Marshall Tournament and have added Pacific, Waynesville, St. Clair and Sullivan to their own tourney.
“We’re playing the toughest schedule we’ve had since I’ve been at Salem,” Karr said. “We’ve beefed up our tournaments. Geographically speaking, no matter if we’re going north, south, east or west, somebody we’re playing is going to have good pitching. We’re hoping our schedule has a positive impact and win or lose, prepares us better for our conference schedule and districts.”