By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Because the 2020 baseball season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the region’s schools haven’t played a meaningful game since the spring of 2019.
Norwood has played 24.
As a small school with no football program, the Pirates field baseball teams in both the spring and fall seasons. While larger, spring-only schools have endured a layoff of nearly two years, Norwood’s fall 2019 and fall 2020 seasons were played as scheduled.
As schools of all sizes get ready to play ball this spring, that extra experience will undoubtedly help coach Drew Miller’s team — but it will be in a quality-over-quantity sense.
Of the 16 games currently on Norwood’s spring schedule, only four are against teams who don’t also play baseball in the fall. The rest are against Summit Conference rivals, who all also played a full slate of games this past fall and are in the same situation as the Pirates.
But few of those schools were as successful as Norwood, which went 10-2 this past autumn and lost to Hartville in the final game of the conference’s fall tournament. With no changes to the roster since then, the Pirates appear poised to push for a conference and district title.
“I’ve said since Day One the fall is basically spring training,” Miller said. “In the middle of August, you’ve got your new freshmen reporting to practice with your upperclassmen and you basically get 12 games to figure out what they can do and what they’re made of.”
Though the Pirates didn’t have a single freshman join the team in the fall, leaving them with a 12-man roster, it didn’t take long for Miller to realize the group had a lot of potential.
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His entire starting outfield graduated with the Class of 2020, forcing some of the returning and new Pirates to learn new positions on the fly. Miller acknowledged there were growing pains — blown leads, preventable errors — but the results were overwhelmingly positive.
“We have kids that understand and accept their roles,” Miller said. “On the first day of fall practice, when you saw there were 12 people — and when you think of 12, you really don’t understand it until you’re standing in the huddle and you’re like ‘This is it, this is all we’ve got.’ I think that standing there, the kids realized they were going to have to step up.”
For Norwood’s upperclassmen, part of stepping up was transitioning into leadership roles.
Miller said this fall was probably the most challenging season he’s encountered as a coach, because he had to manufacture a new outfield from players who had limited time at the position — if they had ever played it at all. But it was also the easiest, as he had seniors Jalen Drake, Josh Bradshaw and Zack Black and juniors Garrett Davault and Jacob Sinning and Dylan Calhoun to help mold the raw outfielders into immediate contributors.
“A lot of times I didn’t have to say anything because I had my junior and senior class jumping down their throats,” MIller said. “To me, that’s what it takes to have a mature team, a winning team, a competitive team. Whenever the players start jumping the players for wrongdoings, but then end up giving them a slap on the butt and saying ‘There you go, I knew you had it in you.’ That’s kind of what we ran into this fall. I think that had a lot to do with our success.”
The most experienced outfielder of the bunch, Sinning will likely be the starting center fielder when he’s not on the mound. Sophomore Gavin McGraw, who won a starting job as a freshman in the fall 2019 season, will occupy one of corner slots. Fellow sophomores Toby Cottengem and Dillion Bennett will also see a lot of time on the outfield and on the mound.
The infield is stacked, as Calhoun, Drake, Black, Davault, Bradshaw all have at least two years of varsity experience and most can rotate positions depending on who is pitching.
“I’d put them up against anybody in our conference or district as far as skillset,” MIller said. “To me, a good infield is better than a good outfield. In high school baseball, you see a lot of ground balls, a lot of infield pop-ups and a lot of strikeouts. Very seldom in Class 1 baseball do you see a guy that can hit one over the 360 (foot) sign in left-center. I like my chances keeping my infield the way it is.”
Miller has so much confidence in his infield, he offered a rather candid assessment of a pitching staff anchored by Davault and Sinning, who combined to go 8-1 in the fall.
“We don’t have anything flashy,” Miller said. “We don’t have anybody that’s going to step up and blow an 85 — even 80 — mile-per-hour fastball by you. What we had in the fall was four or five guys step up and just said ‘Here it is. Hit it, because I trust my defense behind me.’”
More often than not, the defense got the outs that it needed to. Norwood held opponents to four or fewer runs in eight of its 12 games, and three or fewer in six.
“Garrett Davault will probably go into the spring being my ace and man, I’ll be honest with you, he ain’t got nothing that you could even write about,” Miller said. “He just literally catches the ball, steps on the mound and you better be ready when you step in the batter’s box because a strike is coming down the middle of the plate. Our defense steps up and makes plays behind him.”
Junior Brayden Wehrer will be the team’s designated hitter, while sophomores Jenson Mahurin (outfielder) and Wyatt Greenfield (infield) will also make a push for playing time.
The Pirates open the season with a visit to Hurley on March 19.
“I see good things coming,” Miller said. “I think success breeds success and we’ve got a good group of freshmen coming in next year. If we can get this group winning and then just carry it on to next fall and next spring, hopefully this is the start of something for Norwood baseball.”