By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
On and off the field last season, the Clever Bluejays faced heartbreak and adversity.
Clever’s season took a tragic turn the first week when a former teammate passed away.
Trying to recover from that, the Bluejays got off to a frustrating 4-6 start with a team that had high expectations.
The Bluejays never stopped battling, though.
Clever went on an April winning streak that carried the Bluejays into May’s district championship game.
“To say I was proud of last season’s team would be an understatement,” said Clever coach Justin Snider. “From how our season started to how we finished, I was so proud of our guys for overcoming so much mentally, physical and emotionally.”
Youth and potential will be the theme for Clever in 2022.
Clever graduated nearly two-thirds of its regular lineup from a year ago, leaving mostly underclassmen to fill the voids.
“To say we will be young is an understatement,” Snider said. “Our roster is about 90 percent freshmen and sophomores.”
The good news: Clever’s returning varsity players have big-game experience and are poised for big seasons.
Seniors Corbin Allie (P) and Seth McGaughey (DH) will be vital players in their respective roles.
Allie (2-1 overall, 1.88 ERA) emerged as a solid starter in Clever’s pitching rotation a year ago.
He got the start in Clever’s district championship game and was later named first team all-district and honorable mention all-conference.
“We have very high expectations for Corbin to be in the top of our rotation and help us more defensively as well,” Snider aid.
McGaughey hit .264 with six RBIs in his first season as a varsity starter.
“He’s a strong kid who we look to see more power from. He has improved a lot with his work in the weight room,” Snider said.
Junior Hayden Camp (IF/OF) emerged as a star last season, earning all-state honorable mention in a utility role. He hit .473 with 11 RBIs and 11 steals.
“He’ll play more in the outfield this year and will hit 1-hole or 2-hole for us,” Snider said. “Hayden is much stronger this year and we hope that helps his power numbers. His bat control and plate discipline are so good for a young hitter.”
Sophomore Lane Mendenall, a 6’3” sophomore, had a stellar rookie season. He started nearly every game for Clever, either in the outfield or on the mound.
He’ll pitch again this season, but could see more time on the infield when he isn’t throwing.
Mendenhall finished 4-0 overall with 2.63 ERA. He batted .304 with five doubles, 12 RBIs and three steals.
“Lane has grown tremendously in strength and added some major velocity to his fastball, to go along with a plus curveball,” Snider said. “Lane is fast, athletic and strong and we look for him to step up in a leadership role this year even as a sophomore.
Clever will lean heavily on Allie and Mendenhall while its younger hitters adjust to varsity competition.
“We’ll have a really good 1-2 punch on the mound with Allie and Mendenhall. They’ll need to pitch at a high level early on as we’ll be trying to figure out what combination of players work best in our lineup,” Snider said.
Clever recorded its third straight season of 15 or more wins a year ago, finishing 15-8 overall.
With a four-run rally in the bottom of the seventh, the Blue Jays beat New Covenant Academic 10-9 in the district semifinals before losing 1-0 to Strafford in the championship game.
A mix of former JV players and freshmen will contend for several vacant spots.
Juniors Carter Wenger and Trevor Deulen can play the field or help on the mound.
“Carter can play almost any position – and he may do that this year,” Snider said.
“Trevor will be in a position battle at third base and catcher for playing time. He’s a smooth, left-handed hitter who can help us out in the pitching department.”
Senior Carson Springer hasn’t played baseball since his freshman year. The lefthander could give Clever pitching depth as he regains arm strength and endurance.
Sophomore Brayden Verch, a lefthander, will likely earn a spot in Clever’s pitching rotation. He also provides a quality presence in the field and at the plate.
Other sophomores competing for varsity innings and at-bats are: Curtis Ruble (UTL), Austin Scott (C) and Carson Rennison. Trace Barnes had surgery this winter for a hip injury he suffered in football; Snider hopes Barnes can return by late April or early May.
Clever’s large freshmen class could see significant varsity action as well.
Landon Flood (UTL/P) and Owen Hall (UTL/P) are in line for starting roles.
“Landon’s very strong for a freshman and will likely hit in the middle of the order. He’ll contribute a lot,” Snider said. “Owen’s one of the more fundamentally sound players we’ve had as an incoming freshmen. His baseball skills and IQ are much higher than the average freshman.”
Peyton Guccione, a 6’3” pitcher, could be a spot-starter and relief pitcher as a freshman.
Brennon West (IF/OF/P), Caleb Smith (C) and Jack Whitlinger (1B/C) round out a promising rookie group. Snider said most of the freshmen could see varsity action at some point this season.
“We may have a rotation of catchers early in the year between Smith, Deulen, Scott and Whitlinger to see who can earn the spot,” Snider said.
The Bluejays must replace a large and productive senior class from last season’s squad. Clever graduated six seniors from its varsity lineup, several of which are now playing at the college level.
Infielders Jake Twigg (first team) and Cole Langley (honorable mention) both earned all-state honors in Class 3.
Twigg hit nearly .500 with nine doubles, 19 RBIs and 27 steals. On the mound, he was 2-3 overall with a 3.91 ERA and one save.
“Jake was probably the best athlete I’ve ever had at Clever,” Snider said. “He created so much havoc with his speed and athletic ability. He was fun to match and had the work ethic to go along with it.”
Langley hit cleanup for the Bluejays and hit .447 with four homers, seven doubles and 32 RBIs last season.
“Cole was a sure-handed first baseman and had a tremendous year at the plate,” Snider said. “We will miss his leadership and his presence at the plate. He hit for average and produced power-wise as well.”
Twigg and Langley both signed to play at Mineral Area College.
Zack Garcia became Clever’s ace pitcher. Garcia went 6-2 on the mound with a 2.13 ERA, while also providing a dependable bat in the lineup (.266, 11 RBIs).
Garcia signed to play at North Arkansas Community College.
“Zack was a bulldog for us, throwing almost every big game we had,” Snider said.
Catcher Tanner Bradshaw brought a strong baseball IQ behind the plate and boosted Clever’s pitching staff. At the plate, he hit .353 with 24 RBIs.
Bradshaw signed with North Arkansas Community College.
Drew Hanafin (OF) and Nolan Hall (UTL/P) also had valuable roles.
“Drew was a smart, consistent outfielder for us who did everything that was asked of him,” Snider said. “Nolan really turned it on offensively late in the season and had a great district tournament.”
Clever opens the regular season March 18 at home against Quapaw, Okla. The Bluejays host the Clever ROTB Tournament March 21-26.
“We will likely have some early growing pains as we find the right lineup, but I do believe this is a group that could be very special and surprise a lot of people,” Snider said. “We have a great mix of upperclassman with big-game experience, with a lot of new faces who work their tails off not just on the field but in the weight room as well.
“Our schedule will test us weekly and prepare us for a run when it comes playoff time.”