2022 Spring Preview: Ava Baseball

By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)

For the first time in more than 25 years, there’s a new person guiding the Ava baseball team.

But don’t expect too much to change now that Weston Loftin has been promoted to head coach.

The former Ava player inherits the program from longtime skipper Rex Sawyer, who retired at the end of the 2020-21 school year. Loftin played for Sawyer before continuing his baseball career at Missouri Valley College, ultimately returning to his alma mater as an assistant coach.

Because of that, Loftin is intimately familiar with how the Bears have done things over the years — and the current group of players that will look to continue the program’s string of success.

“I have been able to coach several of these guys since middle school,” said Loftin, who spent four years as an assistant coach. “So they know what I am looking for when they step on the ball field.”

When you’ve won at least 15 games in five consecutive seasons, a lot of things are going right. Loftin isn’t about to implement any drastic changes, but he wants the Bears to be even grittier.

“There are a lot of things we will continue to do the same but with a different flair to it now,” Loftin said. “My style of play is more old-school when I want the players grinding everything out because in the game of high school baseball, you never know what can happen.”

Just look at Sawyer’s final season as an example.

The Bears finished 16-6, clinched a share of the SCA conference title and upset state-ranked Logan-Rogersville to advance to the district championship game, where they came within a run of knocking off a Springfield Catholic team that entered the playoffs sitting atop the state rankings.

“Last year’s group was able to accomplish some things that I don’t believe some people thought they could,” Loftin said, noting he hoped the postseason finish would motivate this year’s Bears.

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“I want the team to look hungry this year after falling in the district championship game,” the coach added. “That needs to drive these boys. My vision for the future is for the program to continue to be successful. We are losing some very talented seniors after this year, so I hope they can pass down their knowledge to the underclassmen.”

Ava’s five-player senior class is headlined by all-state pitcher/utility man/leadoff hitter Zach Richards, who was voted SCA most valuable player and earned a spot on the all-district team.

“What he was able to do for us on the mound was phenomenal,” Loftin said. “We are expecting another big year for him. He could see himself in the infield and outfield depending on the day.”

Andrew Dalton was an all-conference and all-district pitcher/outfielder last season, though Loftin said the Drury basketball signee will now likely play first base on most days he does not pitch.

“I am expecting him to be a big arm for us on the mound,” Loftin said. “I see him coming into his own this year as a senior. He’s been playing a lot of baseball and getting more comfortable.”

Classmates Reece Adams and Spencer Skyles are two more all-district and all-conference selections who will be looking to make the most out of their final season of high school baseball.

Adams is the team’s primary catcher, though he may be called upon to throw some innings.

“He is a good enough athlete that he could play any position for us,” Loftin said. “He is also a really good coach when it comes to helping younger guys, so we will lean on him to help our younger group. Being the full-time catcher, we expect a great year with having more opportunities.”

Skyles will return to his role as the team’s centerfielder.

“The power/speed combo that he has will make it hard for other teams,” Loftin said. “We should have him back fully healthy this year, so that will be a big boost for the team. He’s only scratched the surface of his potential.”

Fellow senior Caden Lee played right field when Dalton pitched last season and projects to be the everyday starter at that position this spring. Shortstop Corey Heinlein is also back one year after collecting all-conference honors and figures to add a more prominent role on the mound.

“He will most likely be our closer for us as well, so hopefully we give him a lot of opportunities to finish out some games,” Loftin said of the junior. “He stepped up last year in a big way so we are excited to see him blossom even further.”

Ava was one of the region’s most experienced teams last spring, returning eight players who would have been starters in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the season. While seven seniors graduated in the offseason, Loftin noted the Bears still have several veterans.

“We have six guys with significant experience on the varsity level,” Loftin said. “I believe that will help us a long way this year. We like to have our guys teach others at their spots so the next guys are ready when it is their turn … to step up into the vacant roles.”

Outfielder/pitcher Ashton Stout and utility man Ryan Thompson also saw some varsity action last season and could lock down starting roles. Thompson figures to be the everyday second baseman, but will also bat cleanup and pitch. Stout is the frontrunner for an opening in left field.

“It will be an open competition,” Loftin said. “Whoever is performing at the highest level will be there.”

Freshmen Preston Adams (infielder/pitcher), Spencer Seiger (infielder), Garrison Honeycutt (first baseman/pitcher) and Devon Sawyer (outfielder) will all be looking to earn some varsity innings.

Other newcomers include Wyatt Johnson (junior catcher/outfielder), Roebe Henry (sophomore infielder/pitcher) and Logan-Rogersville transfer Sayge Painter (sophomore infielder/pitcher).

“Sayge is new to our program but the kid can play,” Loftin said. “He is a middle infielder by trade but I expect him to be battling for a starting position somewhere.”

Painter projects to be the third man in Ava’s pitching rotation behind Richards and Dalton.

“We will have to develop some extra pitching this year,” Loftin said. “I feel like I can pitch our top two guys against just about anyone. That makes me happy as a coach because I know what they can do. Several people will have to step up and fill roles.”

The Loftin era begins with a March 15 jamboree at West Plains that involves the Zizzers, Springfield Catholic and Mountain Grove. Ava’s regular-season and home opener is March 19 against Clinton.

“I hope we are known for being the team that you can’t ever take lightly because of how hard we are working,” Loftin said. “That can be running out a pop up or whatever it is. We better be the team doing the right things.”

Should Loftin need to lean on Sawyer for any advice, he won’t have to go too far.

“He is a guy that likes to stay busy, so I knew he would be back to work in some capacity very quickly after retiring and he was,” Loftin said. “He will be back as the head softball coach for Ava.”

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