By Amanda Perkins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Mark Vaughan was ready to start his first year as head coach at Mountain Grove last spring after 17 years as head coach at Plato; his tenure there included a state title and a third-place state finish. Instead, the veteran coach helped his new team hone their baseball skills in the off-season.
“We were very fortunate to get to play a lot of games this summer,” said Vaughan. “Hopefully that gave us an opportunity to mature and gain confidence that we need to compete with everyone we play.
The Panthers took second place in the district in 2019 and three key contributors to that season have now graduated. Rhett Wakefield was a team leader who hit in the middle of the order and earned all-district and all-conference honors. “He would have had a quality year,” said Vaughan of the missed senior season. Cason Lee would have been a winner on the mound, and Ethan Emery would have started at third or DH every day.
“These seniors provided leadership with the young team we had last year,” said Vaughan. “Although we didn’t get to play a game, these seniors were working hard during off-season workouts and spring baseball practice. I enjoyed getting to know them and appreciate the hard work they put in.”
The Panthers do bring back a load of experienced players. Brendon Rogers, junior, started his freshman year and will pitch and play a corner position, hitting anywhere from the top to the middle of the order. Rogers also had a successful summer showing.
Bryce Stenzel, junior, started his freshman year and also gained experience over the summer. He played a variety of infield positions and pitched a lot of innings, and will likely be found at shortstop. He will be a top or middle of order hitter.
Drew Vaughan would have started as a freshman in the 2-hole spot and middle infield last season. The sophomore is a strong bat and glove and a good runner, and could help out as a reliever.
Junior Nick Archer was a part-time starter as a freshman and had quality innings on the mound. He will be utilized in a variety of positions and has a solid bat.
Hunter Means would have contributed on the mound as a freshman. The leftie pitcher “has really good power at the plate…he keeps getting better,” said Vaughan. “I look for him to have a breakout year.” He also could contribute in corner outfield.
Jackson Raney, junior, will likely bat in the middle of the order and is expected to drive in runs. He does have varsity experience and should have a big year on the mound.
Jace Dowden also would have started last season and is likely to be the everyday centerfielder. The junior is a strong runner with a solid glove and improving batting.
Wes Drew played catcher this summer and steadily improved. The junior is a hard worker and coachable, per Vaughan, and also improved all summer at the plate. “He will probably hit in the bottom of the order. He has speed, which could also allow him to play an outfield position if needed.”
Colton Allen is a 6’2” junior who suffered a football injury in the fall of 2019 and would have been sidelined last season, and also spent the summer recovering. He is expected to be consistent at bat and in the field and could play corner outfield. “He has power to both sides of the field,” said Vaughan. “He helps us have a solid nine kids at the plate.”
Newcomers include Gatlin Keeling, a freshman who is competing for a starting role, played numerous positions over the summer, and has a solid bat and glove. Gabe Linton is also a freshman with a good glove and could see some starts. Dominic Palagi, sophomore, played middle infield this summer and improved every game. Carson Allen is a freshman, “a big kid who has a solid bat,” who could see spotted starts and pinch-hitting opportunities.
The Panthers will soon get to test the experience they gained in playing nearly 30 quality opponents over the summer. Mountain Grove will open their season March 20 at Van Buren.