Tigers have Ozark 7 Conference title in sights

BY KYLE TROUTMAN ktroutman@cassville-democrat.com

The Exeter baseball team is enjoying another successful season, on the brink of a possible fourth straight Ozark 7 championship and hoping to chase a trophy in the six-team Class 1, District 5 tournament coming up.

Matt Tripp, Exeter baseball coach, said the Tigers who have two district title match appearances in the last three seasons, have played inspired ball this season, continuing to improve as the season progresses.

“Our ability to not quit and fight back [has been great],” he said. “Our hitting has been steadily improving thus far. Our defense was shaky in the beginning. We still have moments of poor execution on defense, but we seem able to push through and make the routine plays even after a few mistakes.”

Sharpening their play is the Tigers’ goal in the remaining six regular-season contests and Miller Invitational, leading into the district tournament.

“We have to clean up the routine play errors,” Tripp said. “We need to continue to improve offensively and we need a third man in the pitching rotation to step up.”

As the season winds down, Tripp said Exeter is on the verge of a possible Ozark 7 title this week, hinging on two games.

“McAuley is Tuesday and we’ll be missing our best hitter, shortstop and one of our two starting pitchers all week,” Tripp said on Friday. “If we can win that game, we’re guaranteed at least a shared conference championship. We have College Heights on Friday, and we’ll still be missing our top hitter and our second-best hitter, and our first baseman will be gone. A win on Friday would leave us undefeated in conference.”

Exeter was enjoying a four-game win streak that came to an end on Friday with a 6-1 loss to Blue Eye, and Tripp hopes the Tigers can string another set of wins together.

“Hard work, repetition and gaining experience [helped us go on that streak,” Tripp said. “We’re always dealing with a lot of newcomers to baseball and almost no experience at a highly competitive level. We currently have one player who grew up playing competitive travel ball. It takes a bit for our guys to put together the things needed to win and win consistently against mostly more experienced players. When the light bulbs start coming on, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

One of the wins in that string of four was over Barry County neighbor Southwest, a 6-3 win on the road.

“It is always an accomplishment to beat a school larger than you, especially a school a couple classes higher that has so much more depth,” Tripp said. “Usually, the top end talent is similar. The depth and experience is what kills you in a small program. We regularly compete with and often beat schools much larger than us. You have to when you’re in the smallest class there is.

“I use well over 30% of the male population of our high school. That guarantees inexperience and a widely varying talent pool. I love the challenge. It’s one of the reasons I stay where I am. If it were easy, everyone would do it. We love the challenge of constantly being the underdog and stringing those victories together. Our boys’ motto is, ‘next game.’ I love it.”

Exeter’s next game on the schedule is at home against Verona on Monday, and the season’s final contest is against Hurley, who has the second- most wins of Exeter’s district opponents but is not quite the biggest threat in Tripp’s eyes.

“Our biggest competition for districts is Billings,” he said. “They are another small school that always competes at a high level. I don’t care how their season shakes out, they will be ready for districts. Hurley has a young man that is a game changer for them on the mound and with his bat. McAuley has a fellow that can be difficult to work around when he’s on the bump. As expected, we have a great opportunity to bring home another conference title and to snatch that district title from Billings.

“We have seen the two most probable schools that would be our sectionals opponents already. We had them at the beginning of the year and played a couple horrible games against them. That makes us want to get back to them that much more.”

Monday’s matchup against Verona starts at 5 p.m.