By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
This season marks the dawn of a new era for Branson baseball.
After 27 years at the helm, Troy Nimmo stepped down to become an assistant coach at Nixa. Another veteran skipper is looking to revitalize a team that has won just 18 games since 2018.
New head coach Kirk Harryman won six district titles during a 17-season run at Joplin, guiding the Eagles to a state championship in 2001. He resigned from his varsity coaching duties in 2016 but remained with Joplin as a school administrator.
Harryman returned to the dugout in 2020 to coach summer and fall programs with 417 Baseball and the Midwest Nationals, which sparked an interest in rejoining a varsity team. After his youngest son graduated from high school last year, there was no better time to make the move.
“I told (my wife) Deborah when Josh graduated last spring that if the right job came open that I would definitely listen,” Harryman said. “We were excited because we love the area, the school district and Branson has traditionally been a very strong baseball school.”
But the Pirates have had just two winning seasons since their most recent district title in 2013, and haven’t won more than six games in a season since 2017. They finished 6-17 one year ago, but return seven seniors and several other players who collected valuable varsity experience.
“We have a solid group of seniors and underclassmen that understand the challenges that we are facing and are working hard to improve their game to help us find a way to be competitive,” Harryman said. “We as a staff are really excited about getting them ready to compete and put them in the best position to find success. We want to really focus on ourselves and how we play the game of baseball — and if we go out and play the game well, we will give ourselves opportunities to have a successful season.”
Branson returns two players who earned all-conference and all-district honors last season.
Senior Carter Jenkins will help anchor the pitching staff and play third base on his days off.
“Carter is a guy that I know brings some experience as a starter both on the mound and in the middle of the lineup,” Harryman said. “Looking forward to watching him progress his senior year.”
Junior Cade Grimm is a utility player who saw time at catcher, designated hitter and the outfield.
“Looking forward to getting to work with him as he has spent his time this school year being a standout on the football field and the wrestling mat,” Harryman said.
Branson also has two seniors who have committed to Evangel, Kale Lankton and Heath Cole.
Lankton is a pitcher/first baseman who could see some time in the outfield.
“We are excited about the progress we have seen with Kale on the mound this off-season and are looking forward to seeing how that pays off this spring,” Harryman said.
Cole spent the majority of last season as a catcher, but also threw quality innings.
“Heath is going to be a leader of what we feel is a very good group of catchers,” Harryman said. “Offensively, he gives us a left-handed bat that is capable of driving the baseball.”
Other returning seniors include Ridge Schroeder and Lance Strahan, both pitchers/middle infielders who started last season. Classmates James Ryan Houston (pitcher/infielder) and Blake Green (pitcher/utility) are also back and will compete for innings.
“I think we have a solid group of seniors on our pitching staff as well as some young arms we are excited about,” Harryman said. “The way our schedule starts off, there are going to be a lot of games in the first nine days and we will be able to really see the rotation start to come together.”
In addition to Grimm, five other juniors could see varsity action this season. Nathan Leonard, Rylan Cornelison, Blake Moody, Dylan Schmitt and Elijah Sietz will all compete for innings.
Sophomores Kaleb Vejraska, Ty Jenkins, Andrew Bristow and Javen Finkbone all saw some varsity starts as freshmen and will push for even more this year. Classmates Jansen Poor, Sam Adkisson, Kyler Lankton, Collin Ross, Marshall Storm, Tristen Bough, Aaron Strohm, Ethan Kennon and Ben Mathews give the Pirates some additional depth across multiple positions.
“I think for a team to be real successful, there needs to be battles not just in the preseason but guys always pushing each other to get better and competing for varsity innings,” Harryman said. “Players’ roles can change during the season and we want them to embrace that competition and for them to be ready for their opportunities when they are given.”
Branson opens the regular season on March 18 with a home doubleheader against Parkview and Chouteau (Oklahoma). Harryman’s first game back in Joplin is scheduled for April 14.
“First, being a part of a school district for 24 years, the hardest part about leaving was the relationships that you have built during your time there with your students, players and co-workers,” Harryman said. “Getting to see some of those people again will be nice. Second, about baseball, it will not have anything to do with me. It will be about the kids and what they do with their opportunities that baseball gives them that day. Baseball doesn’t ever change. I will just be in the third base dugout this time.”