After finishing third at the state tournament last spring in O’Fallon, Missouri, the Boonville Pirates baseball team knew things were about to change with head coach Fred Smith stepping down at the conclusion of the 2018 season.
While capturing both conference and district titles, the Pirates also fell short in its bid to knock off the defending state champion, Aurora, in the semifinal round of the state tournament.
But that was last year.
This year, the Pirates will have a new coach at the helm in Adam Arnette, who was the assistant coach under Smith for four years.
Also gone are four starters, which includes the whole left side of the infield, the first baseman and left fielder.
Nonetheless, the cupboard is far from bare for the Boonville Pirates baseball team. In addition to having 44 players suited up for the 2019 season, four starters return in the field along with the No. 2 and 3 pitchers from last year.
Boonville will open the 2019 season at home on Friday, March 15 against the Fulton Hornets starting at 5 p.m. The Pirates will then embark on a four-day trip to Oxford, Alabama to play four games in two days at Choccolocco Park.
Arnette said he is really excited to get started.
“Since I have been around the kids are familiar with me, which is good, and coach Hough has been around with football so they are familiar with him as well so that’s really good,” Arnette said. “There’s not really break in period because we all know each other and we are familiar with each other. We’re just trying to go in and build a basis on what we want our whole season to end up like right now.”
It won’t be easy with a schedule consisting of the four Alabama teams, who are currently 26-15 combined, Hallsville, Helias, Odessa, Southern Boone, Smith-Cotton, Blair Oaks, Rock Bridge and Marshall just to name a few.
Arnette also knows he has big shoes to fill not just by taking over for Coach Smith but the program as a whole, which has only one losing season in its 24 year history.
“As long as we can stay focused day in and day out I think we can really be as good as we like to be and that has been our major focus this spring; is just working hard every day and not taking a off day,” Arnette said. “Just really getting in and getting to work and trying to get better and stay focused during games. If we do that, I don’t see anybody on our schedule that we can’t be in a game with.”
Those teams that weren’t mentioned earlier might have something to say about that along with the new district schedule, which was released last Friday. Although a district site has yet to be determined, Boonville will compete along with Centralia, Fulton, Helias, Marshall, Moberly and Southern Boone.
Boonville will also open the season in a new conference this spring. While competing in the North Central Missouri Conference the last 10 years, Boonville will now compete in the Tri-County Conference along with Blair Oaks, Southern Boone, Hallsville, Versailles, California, Osage and Eldon.
Arnette said he thinks the TCC will be pretty comparable to the NCMC.
“I think we will have a couple of pretty good programs and then you will always have some lower end programs just as we did in the other conference,” Arnette said. “I think it will be a good move for us overall. I do like that we play only one conference game and we can get some other competition in as well because I feel like in the old conference playing two games there really wasn’t many games that we could get in there to get some more competition.
“I would like to think we could be up there along with teams like Hallsville, Southern Boone and Blair Oaks, though. Hallsville always put a really good team together. I think Blair Oaks will be pretty good as well so I would think those are probably the frontrunners in the conference right now if I had to guess.”
Make no mistake, Arnette is here to win now, the next year and the year after that but knows it will be tough not just in the new conference but also with districts being aligned every year now instead of every two years.
After the game against Fulton to start the season and the trip to Alabama, the Pirates will find out soon enough if they are contenders or pretenders with a home game against Hallsville on March 22 and then a road game against Helias, a district opponent, on March 26.
“I would like to have a successful season obviously,” Arnette said. “I kind of want to make sure our guys are staying focused and that we are playing the game the right way and always hustling,” Arnette said. “I want our guys to be successful in the classroom and really just build the pieces of a program that I think everybody would say would be a successful program.”
While the weather the last two weeks has been less than cooperative, Arnette said he still feels like Boonville will have a good pitching staff this season. And then on top of that, Arnette said having senior catcher Dylan Watson behind the plate really helps the young pitchers because it will benefit them in the long run.
Arnette also sees Boonville be strong up the middle with a senior at second base and another senior in center field.
“I think our base is good and some of our younger kids are going to have good leaders to follow,” Arnette said. “I think we are also going to hit well. I don’t want to say we are going to hit with a lot of power but I think we will hit for average.”
With only one home run among the starters returning from last year, the Pirates could be a gap to gap hitting team along with picking its spots to hit and run and move runners over with the short game.
“We do have some inexperienced guys that don’t have a lot of varsity innings,” Arnette said. “We just want to do the little things right. When it comes down to it, we are going to have to be able to move baserunners whether it’s hitting behind a runner, bunting a guy over or making all of our routine plays I think thats going to be the key. If we can do those things I think we are really going to be successful because we have some great pitching. We have some guys who can get the job done at the plate so if we can do the little things right we care going to be really successful.”
If the Pirates are to get back to the Final Four for the fifth time in the history of the program, Arnette will have to rely on his top two pitchers in seniors Reece Lang and Connor Barnes.
Barnes, a returning all-state selection from last year, returns after finishing 5-1 with an ERA of 1.964 in 46 1/3 innings pitched. While No. 1 pitcher Jared Viertel is off to Crowder Junior College, Barnes will have to carry the load along with Lang. But while pitching the second most innings on the team last spring, Barnes still managed to record 67 strikeouts while giving up just 17 runs (13 earned) on 28 hits and 11 walks.
As for Lang, he will give the Pirates a different look since he throws from the left side. But everybody knows what Lang is capable of after shutting out state-ranked Westminster Christian Academy for six innings last year in the quarterfinals. While finishing 6-0 in 2018 with an ERA of .972, Lang also gave up just eight runs (five earned) on 22 hits and eight walks while striking out 47 batters.
After Lang and Barnes, Arnette will look to sophomore Cody Garner as the No. 3 pitcher in the rotation. Garner got his feet wet last year while pitching 4 2/3 innings with one save. Junior Nathan Platt and senior Trae Williams, meanwhile, will be looked at in long relief or a closer role.
“First of all I don’t think you can go wrong with either Reece or Connor,” Arnette said. “I don’t know if I would say No. 1 or No. 2 because I think both of them could anchor our staff either way. I like how our lineup looks better with Reece there at No. 1 just because I know I have Connor up the middle that is going to anchor that infield for me and pull them together if it needs to be done. At the No. 3, we will have a couple of young guys. I would say Cody is probably No. 3 as of right now. He has the most experience coming back as a pitcher. He was less than 10 innings last year for us but I think he’s got good enough stuff that he is going to be able to throw some games and get some spot starts here and there.”
Arnette said sophomore Lane West could also fill some innings but is coming off a back injury from football.
“I feel pretty good about our pitching staff,” Arnette said. “We have a lot of inexperienced guys after Reece and Connor but I feel like if we can get in and throw strikes and just get ground balls I feel like our defense is going to play well enough that we will get outs.”
Arnette is also counting on senior catcher Dylan Watson to lead the show this season. A returning all-state catcher for the Pirates, who has started the last two years, Arnette said they don’t get any better than Watson.
And rightly so. While hitting .348 last spring with 23 hits in 66 at bats, Watson also finished second only to Kole Ficken in doubles with seven while driving in 25 runs.
“Dylan is going to run our pitching staff,” Arnette said. “We expect him to be a leader for our team throughout the year and will probably hit in the middle of the order just like he has the last two years.”
Sophomore Kayle Rice will also seem some action behind the plate this season, Arnette said.
As for the infield, Arnette said first base right now is a question mark just because the coaching staff hasn’t seen enough of the players in live action. However after Friday’s scrimmage at the high school, Garner looks to have nailed down the starting spot at first.
Others who will see action at first are senior Clayton Gochenour, juniors Nathan Platt and Dawson Barnthouse and sophomore Saylor Marquez.
“First base is probably the one position we are unsure of at this point,” Arnette said.
No problem at second base. Barnes returns for his second season at that position after hitting .338 with 24 hits in 71 at bats with 16 singles, seven doubles and two RBIs.
Arnette said when Barnes is pitching, Garner could move over to second. Garner may also DH some this season, Arnette said.
“We will definitely look to Connor to be the leader on the infield,” Arnette said. “As far as his bat goes, he will be one of our top hitters. We will use Cody more of a utility player. We’ve had him work out in a lot of different positions just because we want to see how he can do. Right now it looks like he can play almost every position on the infield.”
As for the left side of the infield, Arnette will have two new starters at shortstop and third base. With Kole Ficken and Ethan Waibel graduating last year, Arnette said he will start sophomore Peyton Taylor at short and Lane West at third.
Taylor played in 10 games last year on varsity and had two hits in eight at bats for a .250 average. West, meanwhile, played on the C-team as a freshman.
“Peyton has gotten a lot stronger in the last year” Arnette said. “He is going to be more of a gap to gap type guy for us offensively. As for Lane, he will also throw some for us. He is a pretty strong kid at the plate as well. He can hit the ball to all fields and has a little power, too. Defensively, I feel like we are going to be pretty solid on the infield.”
Arnette said Kayle Rice has also been working some at third.
In the outfield, senior Trae Williams returns in center after hitting .343 last spring with 24 hits in 70 at bats with a team leading five triples. He also drove in 20 runs. Meanwhile, in right, senior Carson Campbell also returns for his second year after hitting .313 with 15 hits in 48 at bats. In left, Arnette will start junior Peyton Keeran.
Other players that will see playing time in the outfield are senior Kellen Brownfield, juniors Cale Fox and Josh Polk and sophomore Hunter Pethan.
Arnette said Fox will be the fourth outfielder for the Pirates. “Cale will start the first game in center,” Arnette said. “I think the outfield is going to be pretty solid. It’s probably one of the quicker outfields we’ve had. We have always had one guy out there that is not very fast but this year I don’t think we can say that. As far as speed goes, I think we will cover a little more ground than we have in the past couple of years. You know anything gap to gap is going to be Trae’s and I think the two corner guys can cover their positions.”
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