By Jason Hoekema
It is finally spring, except that it really isn’t, and it’s been cold the last week following an ice event on Wednesday, Feb. 27, and snow… in March.
Nevertheless, America’s original pastime has returned to the high school stage and the Ava Bears have been preparing for the season start at the Springfield Catholic Jamboree and the regular season opener against Hollister on Mar. 19.
The season opener is a home game, by the way. Make plans to attend, because head coach Rex Sawyer is excited about this season… and his deep roster of players.
Looking back, the Bears are coming off of a 16-6 season where they outscored opponents by about three points per game. Their record was 6-1 at home, 4-2 away, and 6-3 on neutral fields last year.
Last year three seniors put-in many innings of play for the Bears. Aaron Everett played 22 games, earning a .386 batting average and a .539 on-base percentage. Through 57 at-bats, the now-graduated senior brought-in a total of ten runs with 9 RBIs and one round of the diamond himself.
Weston Stillings played 21 games last season with a .268 batting average and an on-base percentage of .358. With 12 runs and another 20 batted-in, the former senior brought in 32 on the board for the Bears, fourth behind Wyatt Gastineau (35) and this year’s returning seniors Caleb Johnson (41) and Tom Emerich (40).
Gastineau played 22 games with 88 plate appearances, batting-in 13 runs and making another 22 of his own earning a .315 batting average with a .532 on-base percentage.
FILLING BIG CLEATS
“This year I’ve got I’ve got three seniors (coming) back,” said Coach Rex Sawyer during an interview last Wednesday. “Caleb Johnson, Tom Emerich and the third is Garrett Forrest. Tom and Caleb, they’ve been starters for me since they were freshmen. Both middle infielders. Both are pitchers. Tom I’ve used as utility about everywhere except for catcher and first base. Caleb has been basically a shortstop and pitcher. Both have excellent speed. Both have knowledge of the game that is just unbelievable. They are baseball people. Garrett plays the outfield for me and he’ll be throwing off the hill a little bit this year for us. He has come into himself and got better each year.”
With the returning seniors in Johnson, Emerich and Garrett Forrest, they accounted for 84 runs between the three in the last season.
Johnson led the club last year with 41 runs in his name. Batting-in 16 and making 25 of his own, we can expect another great season from him, although he may find himself in a few different roles this year as the team feels-out who will be the starting nine.
Tom Emerich tallied-up 40 runs, 14 batted-in and another 26 from trips around the bases, one of which was a home run. Emerich ended last season with a .427 batting average, making it on-base at a .552 percentage.
Garrett Forrest is also returning for the 2019 season with three runs (2 RBI, 1 R), but made his statistics from just one plate appearance with ones in the batting average and on-base percentage columns.
“I expect them to be the same players as when they stepped-on as freshmen,” said Sawyer. “We have a pretty good baseball tradition here, taking these young ones and showing them the right path, helping them because they’re young and they’re going to make mistakes. We all do. I want (the seniors) to be in a leadership role. Not just a dictator on the field, but a teammate. I want them to show these young ones because these young ones are our future, too. That’s the biggest part (of what I) want them to do.”
Last year the team averaged .336 overall with 166 runs made-in from 741 plate appearances. Of those, 583 were scored as at-bat, meaning that the plate appearance resulted in a hit and not a walk, catcher interference, hit-by-pitch, or a sacrifice hit.
The Bears’ had a .455 on-base percentage from 148 singles, 36 doubles, seven triples and five homers last year with a slugging percentage of .448, combined with the OBP for an OPS of .903.
The hard-hitting offense wasn’t all contact last year as the opponent pitchers earned 114 strikeouts on Ava batters. However, 29 ball hits, 18 reaches on errors, and 101 walks charged to the opponent defense gave the Bears plenty of chances at completing the square in the scorebook.
With a larger roster of about 24 players, Sawyer is confident in keeping the game going in Ava’s favor.
“The depth is there,” said Sawyer. “The most I’ve ever had since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here for several years. I’m looking forward to the depth. You know somebody is having a bad game and that happens all the time. We’ve got someone else can step in and pick up the tempo a little bit.”
Leading the Bears last year and returning this year are Caleb Johnson (.404 AVG, 21 H, 16 RBI, 25 R) and Thomas Emerich (.427 AVG, 32 H, 14 RBI, 26 R).
Other batters to look for this season are Carter Campbell (.308 AVG, 20 H, 13 RBI, 14 R), Kayden Meyers (.327 AVG, 16 H, 13 RBI, 6 R)
As weather went sideways after Wednesday’s practice, the team was back in the former Rawlings factory Thursday working on the core of good baseball: fundamentals.
In the cages and at the batting nets, batters worked on swing mechanics and adjusting to balls tossed into their strike zone. Nearby, coach Loftin was throwing real pitches as players worked on their bunting ability; a great tool to have when the games gets into a pinch.
EYES UP, GLOVES UP!
On defense, the Bears earned a .914 fielding percentage, putting-out 432 runners out of 501 chances, making a total of 43 errors.
Former student-athlete Aaron Everett led the Bears on defense with 186 baserunners put-out, two on assists. Everett was credited with one double-play and earned a 1.00 fielding percentage making good on his 188 chances to help flip innings. Big cleats to fill.
Returning as seniors this year is Caleb Johnson with a .852 fielding percentage from 42 put-outs, eight errors and four assists.
Tom Emerich also returns with a .875 in fielding, putting 47 baserunners out, grabbing nine assists and made eight errors through last season.
Other players to look out for on the diamond playing defense are Carter Campbell (.808 FPCT), Kayden Myers (.917), Payton Evans (.933), and Zach Mendel (.889)
Wednesday, with a bit of sunlight to burn, the players lobbed balls into the air for their teammates to practice catching the fly ball. With sun in their eyes for the first time this season, players adjusted to the bright orange ball and made their catches in the outfield.
ON THE RUBBER
Last year Caleb Johnson spent 56 innings on the rubber over 15 games last year, seven as a starter. Last year he allowed 41 hits but was also credited with 88 K’s for a 1.75 ERA. As relief pitcher, Johnson kept two games in the lead, never blowing the board up when coming up to the mound mid-game.
“With the pitch count we have to be very careful because you can’t throw three consecutive days no matter what the pitch (count was),” said Sawyer. Even if you throw two one day and two the next, you have to take rest. This year I feel like we have a little bit more depth because I’ve got some juniors that can throw, some sophomores who can throw, and I’ve got some freshmen.”
The all-around player, Tom Emerich, also threw the pearl, pitching 19.1 innings over 13 games with a .724 ERA. Batters only got 13 hits and five runs on the returning senior, who threw 28 K’s last year.
Another returning player with throwing experience is Carter Campbell who threw for 17 innings over seven games last year earning a 7.824 ERA. He did allow 27 runs last year, but also picked up seven strikeouts as he continues to improve as a ball player.
Zach Mendel, who came in late during the basketball season after suffering a shoulder injury playing football in the fall of 2018, also returns to the team. Last year he pitched 13.2 innings, allowing 16 runs and picking up six strikeouts. We may or may not see him in the same capacity as last season. Returning to the roster’s depth, Sawyer is confident in rotating the mound with all the help that has come in this year.
“If I’ve got a pitcher that’s struggling on the hill, we go to somebody else and not be scared,” said Sawyer. “Our pitchers and catchers have been working now for about five weeks, a couple nights a week, and of course we started practice. Again, quite a few pitchers in and we’re seeing a lot of help.”
Thursday, as the young men worked on fundamentals inside the former Rawlings factory, freshman pitchers were making some tosses in the bullpen. Coach Sawyer was seen nodding his head in approval as two freshman and a senior each threw one down the middle with catchers neatly framing the ball.
Coach Sawyer has a large group of new players to work with this year. Nine to be exact. It is difficult to say where they will flourish, but Corey Heinlein was spotted practicing in short and second base during last week’s Wednesday practice.
“Believe it or not, this may be the best freshman class that I’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Sawyer. “I think there will be some freshmen who will push some of these older kids, make them better in a position or might even take that position. Right-off the bat when we step on that field we’re expected to win, and we don’t think about it any other way.”
Well-known athletic 9th-graders are Andrew Dalton, who stormed the basketball court this year, Reece Adams, and Kaden Bruce. The trio played on Ava’s basketball team, Dalton and Bruce starting varsity their first year.
They aren’t the only notables, though.
“I’ve got Andrew Dalton, Corey Heinlein, Braydon Coop, Avin Long, Kayden Lee, Zach Richards, Spencer Skiles, Reese Adams, and Kaden Bruce,” said Sawyer. “Now there is four or five of those kids right there that have played a lot of baseball. They all have different positions that they can play, but that those freshmen there are pretty good. We had a pretty-good freshman group last year with Dotson, Donley, Evans, Marler, Mendel, and Miller. Those guys (some) of them got starting time last year.”
One of the biggest aces up the Bears’ sleeve is the depth coach Sawyer spoke about earlier in his interview. There are only nine who start each game, but with plenty of young athletes on the roster Sawyer has options he may not have had in previous seasons. In addition to his big freshman class, Sawyer has plenty of prospects for the starting nine, which he says can change game-to-game this year.
“You’ve got Carter Campbell who started for us last year,” said Sawyer. “Caleb Brown, Blake King, Kayden Meyers, are some familiar names you know from basketball and football. They are good baseball (players), good athletes. I feel like I’ve got 14, or 15, kids that can break into a starting lineup and I’ve not had that many before.”
Senior Caleb Johnson may not be hanging out at the shortstop position this year as much as he has the last three. The change is part of Sawyer’s whole-team approach to coaching where players are expected to fill gaps with the success of the team as the number one priority. After all, unless you’re the lead-off batter, you’re working together with your teammates.
“That’s the whole key,” said Sawyer. “When one of those players is a starter and a fielder goes to the hill, somebody else is going to step into that other position and that’s what we try to get across to these kids. This is a team game. You’ve got to be a role-player. I’ve got kids that may never step on the field or be a starter this year but can bunt the ball. When I need a bunt laid down – I’m a small-ball player and coach, you can ask anybody around the conference – I will bunt-down at any time it doesn’t matter. That’s what we look for.”
Instead, Johnson may find himself behind the plate as the backstop. A talent Johnson has and will likely have put to use, practicing in the role last Thursday.
“My starting catcher last year was Aaron Everett,” said Sawyer. Aaron has gone-on, he’s playing ball at Evangel this year. Aaron took-over the role as a junior because I had other kids who got hurt. Aaron was an excellent receiver. He’s just a great teammate. He went-on to Evangel this year and we’re making a little bit of change. We’re looking at Caleb Johnson behind the plate. He’s been my starting shortstop since he was a freshman.”
Behind the plate and maybe taking a hit from a runner (he took 11 charges this past basketball season) isn’t the only slot Johnson may play. Since he is a leading pitcher, the whole-team concept again comes into play when he takes the hill and throws the pearl.
“When (Johnson) is on the hill I’ve got Colton Marler, who is a sophomore and then I’ve got a couple others that can fill-in there also,” said Sawyer. But we’re going to be successful. The coaching staff and I feel like Caleb needs be behind the plate and we’re going to make a few changes when he’s on the hill like (having) Marler behind the plate. It could be Kayden Myers, it could be Reese Adams.”
ONE MAN, MANY HATS
Like the players on Sawyer’s roster, the head coach wears many hats for the Ava Bears. As the athletic director, he wears one during his coaching off-seasons. Then he puts on another for softball, and another for baseball. He is an on-the-road supporter of the student athletes, attending games well down the road and well after-hours.
So, what drives Sawyer’s excitement for this time of year?
Like other ball players (now and former), it’s all about pine-tar, pearls and diamonds.
“For one thing, we’ll get back on the diamond,” said Sawyer. “I’ve got some kids that know the game and it always starts warming up when it gets to that time. Cold weather didn’t used to bother me, but it just eats me up now. It’s because I love the game. Those kids that I’ve got right now, they all are baseball players.”
It’s been like this for a while… a good thing considering past success of the team.
“I think this is my twenty-third year as baseball coach, and I’ve got over 30 years in education,” said Sawyer. “It’s just a good tradition here. You can look on the banners in (the gym) and we were always right in the middle of stuff. I’ve got a great coaching staff, Coach James and Coach Loftin, the kids respect them and that’s what works. That’s one thing we do; we want the respect as coaches, and we respect our players.”
The Ava Bears’ first regular-season first-pitch will be on Tuesday, March 19, starting at 4:30 against Hollister. The game(s) will be on the home diamond, and Coach Sawyer expects the community to come-out and support the student-athletes this year.
“You know it’s going to be an exciting year, said Sawyer. “We have one of the finest facilities around as far as baseball in the conference. It’s going to be an exciting year for baseball, and we’ll get a good turnout. Our crowd, our public, our community is very good. Our game will be at four-thirty and there’ll be people out there at 3 o’clock getting ready for baseball.”