By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
2021 was a banner year for Marion C. Early baseball and first-year head coach Jason Grose.
The Panthers posted a 23-5 record, falling to Marionville in the state sectional round.
For Grose, capturing the program’s fourth consecutive district title was a blessing; however, it wasn’t the target the team had been chasing all season.
“We had set goals of making it to the final four but eventually lost to the eventual state champions,” Grose said. “We were up three runs in the 7th in that game and eventually lost. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise great season.”
Graduates Dylan Blehm (Evangel University), Ty Haynes (North Arkansas College), Garret Trantham (Evangel University), Cam Pyle (Baptist Bible College) and John Presley have all moved on from the program.
Blehm was an all-state selection as a senior.
With roster spots to fill, Grose will turn to a pair of seniors to provide experience and leadership in Hadan Madewell and Chance Hampton.
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Madewell, an all-district shortstop/pitcher, hit .349 last season with 1 home run, 43 runs batted in and 16 stolen bases.
“Hadan plays with a lot of energy,” Grose said. “He’s a solid defensive shortstop and has hit cleanup for us for the past two seasons.”
Hampton, a utility/pitcher and all-state selection last season, hit .372 with 1 home run, 18 runs batted in and 12 stolen bases.
“Chance has hit leadoff for us for the past two years,” Grose said. “He gets on base a ton and scores a lot of runs – exactly what you want from your leadoff guy. He’s a quiet leader who works hard. Hopefully, he continues to grow into more of a vocal leader for us.”
Returnees joining the senior duo include Tristan Bruegman, Isaac Francka and Landen Burrow.
Bruegman, a junior pitcher/catcher, hit .346 with 2 home runs and 30 runs batted in last season. The junior also posted 51 Ks in 28.1 innings on the mound with a 1.48 ERA.
“Triston is an extremely talented player,” Grose said. “He has the ability to be one of the best pitchers in the area. He needs to continue working on his leadership skills.”
Francka will spend his junior season patrolling the outfield for the Panthers.
“Isaac is one of those players that every coach loves … one of those guys that you want nine of,” Grose said. “He’s just a great teammate and leader. He’s a good defensive center fielder for us whose offense came a long way this fall.”
Burrow, a sophomore outfielder, started from day one as a freshman.
“Landen is a very athletic kid who is only going to continue to get better at baseball,” Grose said. “He’s now hitting towards the top of the lineup, and if he continues to get on base, he creates havoc on the bases. Him and Chance Hampton at the top both have the ability to score close to 40 runs this spring.”
MCE will also welcome several varsity newcomers to the roster this spring.
Jacob Presley (sophomore pitcher/infielder), Garrett Loftis (sophomore outfielder), Colby Pellham (sophomore first baseman), Ben Lewis (sophomore infielder) and Ian Vance (senior infielder) will all compete for varsity playing time and hope to make an impact in the lineup.
With a host of talent and experience on the roster, Grose is optimistic heading into the spring campaign.
“We once again have high expectations, and we are talented enough to make a deep run in the postseason,” Grose said. “I think our biggest strength should be our pitching staff. As the season progresses, we need to continue working on cutting down our strikeouts offensively.”
On the mound, the Panthers will field a solid staff with Bruegman, Madewell, Presley, Hampton, Vance and Burrow all logging valuable innings.
Grose expects Bruegman to be one of the best Class 2 arms in the area and has high expectations for newcomer Vance, as well.
“Vance could be very dominant,” Grose said. “At the minimum, he is a very solid reliever and spot starter. His ceiling, however, is co-ace. He just hasn’t consistently played baseball the past couple of years, but the ability is there.”
At the plate, MCE will rely primarily on its overall team speed to help generate runs.
“We have a pretty diverse lineup,” Grose said. “I think our biggest strength is our team speed. We stole a ton of bases this fall and will continue to do that this spring, but I also think we have above average power. We had a lot of extra base hits this fall. We also get on base a lot via walks and HBPs, which is a result of our offensive approach.”
Following a March 11 jamboree, MCE opens its regular season March 18 at home against Fair Play.