By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
A year ago the Neosho baseball team had a senior-heavy roster with five returning letterwinners that had years of experience.
It’s a different story in 2021, especially after last season was cancelled.
“The main storyline is we don’t have anybody that played significant varsity innings,” head coach Danny Powers said. “We’re going to be seeing guys who sat out a year. A lot of teams will have at least a handful of kids who saw the field as sophomores. You feel like you lost a year of training so a lot of guys you thought had a whole lot of potential, you still hope they do, you just didn’t get to work with them. It’s going to be exciting to go out there and get to practice and see who’s developed, grown and who’s going to compete.”
The Wildcats went 11-16 in 2019. They were able to play some summer baseball last year but the roster is still full of unknowns with Neosho relying on several players who’ve only been in the program for two years.
Senior left-hander Wyatt Keplar returns with the most experience and will be expected to lead the pitching staff this season. He pitched to a 3.2 ERA as a sophomore but only has about 20 innings of varsity experience.
“Back then he struggled with some consistency issues but still had good stuff,” Powers said. “He has good life to his fastball. We think he’s probably an upper 70’s to mid-80’s kind of guy. He’s probably going to be our guy on the mound.”
The Wildcats have several others who saw a little bit of varsity time, mostly as fill-ins. Senior Brett Slavens will play in the middle infield, likely at second base. He’s already signed with MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas as a middle infielder. Senior Ryan Cargile earned some varsity at bats and will probably hold down a corner infield spot. Junior Lane Yost excited the coaching staff last spring and should be good defensively in the outfield.
“A lot of raw ability there but we look for him to be at the top of our lineup,” Powers said. “He gets on base a lot, he doesn’t strike out a lot. He’s got a good head about him for the game.”
Senior Lane Ebbingaus is fighting for spot on the infield, and senior Jose Ortega is another corner infield type.
“Jose’s got a lot of pop but he’s got to show some consistency at the plate, reduce some strikeouts,” Powers said. “He can definitely hit for some power. Lane is solid defensively for us. It’s going to come down to who can hit, who can get on base and be more consistent at the plate.”
Junior Reese Miller could play in the outfield or pitch and junior Hayden Crane is competing for the starting catching position.
The coaching staff feels pretty good about the freshman and sophomore classes and at least a few of those younger players should also be contributors. Sophomore River Brill played a lot last summer and could end up at a spot like shortstop; he’ll also pitch. Sophomore Wyatt Shadwick impressed at the plate last summer but still needs to find a consistent position in the field. Sophomore Eli Zar caught a few games last summer and is a “promising” young catcher. And sophomore Carter Fenske could throw some big innings.
“I don’t think our arms are going to be as experienced this year,” Powers said. “I think we’ll be okay team speed-wise. I think we’re really going to have to pitch to contact and play good defense and run the bases well, do all the little things. Play a lot of small ball, advance runners, scratch some runs across and hopefully throw and field well enough to win some games.”
“It’s going to be a weird year,” he said. “I feel like we have some seniors that can step up but we’re going to have to rely on a lot of underclassmen to fill some roles. It’s a unique opportunity because we have so many guys who don’t have any real varsity experience. But a lot of them play in the summer. We’re not going to be in a different situation than anybody else.”
The Wildcats will play in a new $1.2 million facility this season near the junior high school, where the district also has its softball and soccer fields. It’s an all-turf field and work is wrapping up this spring. Powers said it’ll be one of the best facilities in the area.
Neosho will participate in a jamboree on Saturday, March 13.