By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
A week before the 2021 playoffs began, the Purdy baseball team was 15-5 and looked to be well on its way toward another district championship. The Eagles had won six straight games — and 15 of their last 17 — and were poised to ride that momentum to their fifth title since 2015.
Then came the Forsyth Tournament.
The Eagles fell to eventual Class 2 state champion Marionville, Class 4 semifinalist Hollister and Reeds Spring in a four-day span, sending them into the playoffs on a three-game skid. The Comets beat Purdy again in the postseason as the Eagles finished a once-promising year at 15-9.
“We knew we had some ability and wanted to test ourselves late in the season and we got that opportunity to see where we were,” Purdy coach Joshua Hughes said. “We knew going into that final week we could make a statement, but we didn’t. I feel we could have had a better record, but not playing the caliber of schedule we played.”
With most of last year’s starters returning, the Eagles are eager to avenge the finish.
Because the 2020 campaign was canceled, the current two-season gap from Purdy’s last district title in 2019 is technically the school’s longest such drought since at least 2009. During this stretch, any contested season that did not end in a championship has always been followed with one that does.
“I think each one of our kids know the expectations set forth by the guys ahead of them,” Hughes said. “We have been very fortunate to have great players over the years and they continue to be a part of this program. Our guys see them at games, practices on occasion and even in the offseason. We want our kids to be hungry to achieve that end goal of a title.”
The Eagles must find a way to replace a trio of all-state selections in Osiel Aldava, Clay Henderson and Baptist Bible commit Jake Brown. But the juniors and sophomores all return with significant varsity experience, especially those who stepped up into expanded roles after fellow 2021 graduate Andy Aldaba suffered an ACL injury a week into his senior season.
“We will go into this spring pretty set defensively and pitching, but we have a lot to work on offensively,” Hughes said. “So we have put in a lot of time early and this off season on hitting. Probably will be hitting more than we have with any team in the past. This was a low area last year and this fall with this group. We need to work extremely hard at this part of the game.”
The Eagles have as many as eight players who could pitch for them, Hughes said.
Junior Ezequiel Garcia will return to the top of the rotation after earning all-league and all-district honors with a 5-2 record and 3.15 earned run average. He also batted .315 and drove in 20 runs.
“He looks to build on that and become our guy on the mound this year,” Hughes said. “He has the drive and will continue to work on the physical and mental part of the game.”
Fellow juniors Travis Hughes, Boston Goetz and Alex Aldaba also return to the Purdy lineup after earning their places on the all-SouthWest Central League and all-district teams.
Travis Hughes drove in 27 runs last spring, the most among returning Eagles, and hit .339. He will transition from left field to centerfield this season and also be a key member of the rotation.
Goetz will be the team’s catcher and join the pitching staff. He batted .368 last spring.
“He has improved and added the throwing game to his arsenal this past fall,” Joshua Hughes said. “He is going to be in the top of the order and when he gets on, he will cause havoc with his speed.”
Alex Aldaba will likely be the team’s No. 2 hitter after batting .345 with 14 RBI last season. He’s also now the team’s No. 2 pitcher and will see a significantly higher workload this spring.
“He will get a lot of innings on the mound and will be huge for us,” Joshua Hughes said.
Zach Henderson earned all-district honors after batting .300 and driving in 15 runs. A utility player who primarily plays in the outfield, he and second baseman Matt Cornelius are the lone seniors on the team. The duo will provide a veteran presence at the bottom of the order.
Junior Josh Brown (.316 average) will transition into a utility role and pitch in key situations.
Classmate Trey Hughes (.312) became the team’s designated hitter midway through last spring, but an injury sidelined him for portions of the fall baseball and winter basketball seasons.
“If he stays healthy, he could be huge for us in the middle of the order,” Joshua Hughes said.
Sophomore Hunter Lee and freshman Will Henderson will also see varsity action after strong offseasons. Lee is a utility player who gives the Eagles yet another arm out of the bullpen, while Henderson is a corner infielder who impressed the varsity coaching staff in Purdy’s fall season.
“We are very fortunate that we have a fall baseball season,” Joshua Hughes said. “We get to see some things and work on a lot of fundamentals and developmental things.”
The Eagles are tentatively scheduled for a March 12 jamboree at McDonald County, pending completion of a new turf field. East Newton and Diamond are also slated to participate.
Purdy’s first regular-season game will be during the Purdy Invitational, which begins March 19.
“This could be a special team,” Joshua Hughes said. “We are just needing to shore some offensive things up and — if we get that fixed — we could be a tough opponent.”