Expectations high for baseball 'Cats
7 starters return to last year's district runner-up
Last year, the Cassville boys baseball team endured a tough season.
Accustomed to ruling the Big 8 Conference, the Wildcats knew last year would be a rebuilding campaign. They finished the season 10-15 and 2-5 in Big 8 play.
"It was a tough year," said Kyle Wood, Cassville coach. "The Big 8 always is a gauntlet during baseball season and couple that with the rest of the teams we played and we had a really tough schedule. We knew we were going to be young again, starting at least four, maybe five sophomores.
"As the year progressed, we had to fight through some adversity, and we actually got younger. By the end of the year, we were starting no less than five sophomores and a freshman for the last 10 or 12 games."
Wood liked his team and knew the Wildcats had potential.
"Obviously, with that youth movement we had halfway through the year, we had to concentrate on getting better week to week," said Wood. "Also, being so young, another big goal for us was having our players buy into the program so we could hopefully be set up for years to come."
His young players caught fire in the district tournament and upset two teams, including the top-seeded Carl Junction, to reach the title game, scoring six times in the final at-bat to win 8-5.
"The commitment and hard work that they gave us for the entire duration of the season paid off with some late season success," Wood said. "Unfortunately, last year, our best wasn't good enough to get out of districts, losing in the district championship game to Monett. I feel like our kids really came together and became a very tight-knit team after we got through the midseason adversity."
Overcoming last season's adversity is what gives Wood hope for this year's squad.
"It is tough to stay together and play for each other when the W's are not racking up, but our players did not waver from each other," he said. "It was very fun to be a part of a group that just wanted to work to get better and try to win every game they played. I firmly believe that the way we finished the year gave our kids confidence that they didn't have before and will serve us well in the coming year."
Gone from last year's team is senior all-conference catcher Marcus Weatherman.
Weatherman went 4-4 on the mound for the Wildcats last season with a 2.31 ERA. He led the team in RBIs.
"Marcus was an absolute rock behind home plate," Wood said. "He was a fantastic catcher for us the past two years. He always controlled our opponents' run game with his blocking and throwing. With Marcus being gone, he leaves a very big hole to fill behind the dish. It is a definite question mark we have going into the year, of who can replace him."
Returning for the Wildcats are seniors Andrew Whitham and Chase Jackson.
Whitham was 1-3 in four starts last year with a 4.69 ERA. He hit .257 with 13 RBI and three doubles. Primarily the team's third baseman, he has spent time as a catcher.
"Andrew has started for us since his sophomore year," said Wood. "He is known for his positive attitude and big personality that he brings to every practice and games. He very much enjoys being out on the ball field. He is a great leader when it comes to communication on the field.
"This year, we are looking for Andrew to be a great team leader in all facets of the game. We look for him to throw a lot of innings on the mound, be a solid hitter in the middle of our line-up, and play a good third base. Andrew will also be looked at to maybe be one of the players called on to fill the hole left at catcher."
Jackson hit .305 last season with 12 RBI and eight stolen bases.
"Chase was our only first team all-conference player last year," Wood said. " He has a good bat with very good speed. Chase has also started since he was a sophomore. Unfortunately, Chase sustained a major knee injury during football season as the starting running back.
"He had surgery and is in the process of rehabbing and fighting to get back on the field," Wood said. "If he does get cleared during the season, Chase will be able to play in the outfield, first base, or designated hitter for us.
"Right now, we are in a wait in see stage with Chase's knee, and we are all hoping for the best possible outcome."
Juniors Noah Hadlow, Alex Dyer, Alex Vanderpool, Leigh Cox, Zane Everett and Chad Howerton also return for Cassville.
Hadlow was 3-4 in seven starts with a 3.35 ERA. He hit .316 with six RBI. In the last three seasons, Hadlow has played in all but four games for the Wildcats.
Wood said Hadlow has really blossomed at the short stop position.
"Short stop is where he is most comfortable, and the kid just started to make plays," Wood said. "This year, Noah will be our No. 1 pitcher, starting short stop and more than likely, the three hole in the lineup.
"I have very high expectations for Noah this year, but I do not think that my expectations for his junior year are anywhere close to the expectations that Noah has for himself. He is an internally-driven kid that wants to do his best all the time."
Dyer was 2-1 on the mound with a 3.92 ERA, at the plate he hit .317 with 10 RBI.
"Alex was always an infielder, but our infield was full his freshman year and we needed to become more athletic in the outfield," Wood said. "Halfway through the year, we moved Alex to center field and he seemed to find his home."
Vanderpool was 0-2 in spot starts last season. He hit .274 with 10 RBI. Wood believes this could be his best year yet.
"Alex has started since his freshman year, Wood said. "Last year, we moved him to first and he blossomed. He is a big target and is able to catch almost anything thrown at him. He also saw some time on the mound, throwing around 20 innings.
"Alex has a good arm and as long as he is throwing strikes he is difficult to hit because of his arm angle and movement on the ball. We look for him to be a run producer from the plate. I believe that we will have the players at the top of our line up to get on base."
Cox hit .213 last season with 13 RBI and one triple. He played in 95 percent of the Wildcats' games.
"Leigh struggled at the plate at the beginning of the year, as most do when players get there first taste of varsity pitching," said Wood. "By the end of the year, he started seeing the ball better and slowly got his batting average up.
"Leigh is very athletic and has a fantastic work ethic. He had a really good summer at the plate and on the field, and I look for him to really explode on the scene this year. He will also see some time on the mound in 2015. He can throw strikes and be a nice, good addition to our pitching staff that returns a lot of starters."
Everett was a .231 hitter as a sophomore with six RBI and four stolen bases
"Zane played mostly as our DH the last one-third of the season," Wood said. "Zane will never be cut short on his swing, and I love that about his approach. He is going to grab his bat and try to hit the ball hard.
"Zane will once again have a chance to help us with his bat and could fill a role somewhere in the field. He has played the infield and outfield for us. We just need to find the best fit for him and the team."
Howerton came on late in the year and hit .200 with three RBI
"Chad will work his tail off to get better every single day," Wood said. "He has a chance to fill one of the empty outfield spots. Chad also has a good swing that got a few big hits for us last year.
"Chad might help us most on the mound this year. He has an ideal throwing motion and can really pound the strike zone. With his work, ethic Chad is another one of our juniors that could be ready for a big year."
Troy Rose, a sophomore, also saw varsity time last year.
"I fully expect Troy to come in and completely take over second base and hit well enough to earn a spot in the line-up," Wood said. "Troy has a good bloodline, being the younger bother of Trey Rose that was the Big 8 player of the year in 2012.
"While we don't expect Troy to reach player of the year level as a sophomore, we do fully believe that Troy is capable of getting to that point before his time with us is done."
Cassville also welcomes newcomers Keenan Roller, Lucas Donavan and Tyler Flowers and Matthew Popanz, juniors; and Denny Wierman, Gilbert Medina, Liam Dougherty, Gavin White and Tyler Arndt, sophomores.
"The coaching philosophy that I have tried to lead the program with has steadily been tweaked and cut during my first five years as the head coach," Wood said. "I really like how we ended the year and the attitude everyone had up and down the program.
"We are going to teach and harp on the fundamentals of the game, like we have done since the day I got the job. We are going to be aggressive in everything that we do when we approach the game of baseball."
Cassville opens the season on Saturday at home with a double header with Pea Ridge and El Dorado Springs. The first game is set to begin at 10 a.m.