Heading into the 2023 season, it’s no secret this year’s senior class will be vital to the success for Joplin’s baseball program.
Even after graduating six from last year’s team, the Eagles boast a senior class that is nine deep this season, with OF/P Brady Mails, IF/P Byler Reither, C Jackson Queen, OF/P Justin McReynolds, IF/P Landon Maples and OF/P Layten Copher highlighting this year’s senior group.
“I think last year going into the season, we had a fair amount of upperclassmen, but they were inexperienced,” Joplin coach Kyle Wolf said about the importance of having so much returning experience at the varsity level. “Going into this year, we have a lot of experienced upperclassmen. That just helps with so many things, ranging from the way we practice—the learning curve is just so much shorter on things—to understanding the grind of playing a tough, rigorous schedule like the one we have. You can play well at times and get beat with our schedule, but you have to bounce back because the next game is going to be a tough one, too. I think that experience from the seniors going into the season is invaluable.”
Filling out the 2023 groups of seniors at the varsity level are OF/P Alex Isbell, OF/P Aiden Kerr and 2B/P Sam Moore.
Also expected to make an impact on the varsity squad this season for Joplin is junior OF/P Cole Lawrence, junior IF Caden Shoemaker, junior UTL/P Eli Sotlar, sophomore IF/P Kutler Schwarting, sophomore IF/P Brock Waghorn and sophomore OF/P Braxon Gough.
“I think it’s a group that brings talent and athleticism to the field,” Wolf said about his newcomers to the varsity level. “It adds to the depth of that senior class, whether it be on the mound or positionally by being able to fill in those gaps.”
Pitching and defense project to be the biggest strengths for Joplin this season. The starting rotation figures to be anchored by McReynolds and Reither, with Isbell and Mails also garnering starts, while Maples, Moore, Kerr, Sotlar, Lawrence, Waghorn, Schwarting and Gough are all potential bullpen pieces.
“I think the experience that group of pitchers has is important,” Wolf said. “Justin has played varsity baseball since midway through his varsity year. He really emerged last year as a good arm for us and someone we could count on in big games. We certainly expect him to continue in that role.
“Byler was kind of a tough-luck guy last year in that there were some games where he pitched well and we didn’t put up runs on the team we were playing was just pretty dang good and beat him that day. He has looked very good and very sharp on the mound so far. We are excited to see what he can do.”
The Eagles’ defense projects with Queen behind the plate, Maples at third, Reither at shortstop, with Schwarting and Shoemaker sharing time at second base. Waghorn will be at first base, with Mails in left field, McReynolds in center and Copher in right to make up the outfield depending on who is on the mound.
“We have an opportunity to be a really good defensive baseball team,” Wolf said. “We have some veteran guys who have logged a lot of innings across the field. …
Offensively for Joplin, the lineup has Reither, Mails and McReynolds projected at the top of the order, with Copher, Maples and Queen filling out the middle. The combo of Schwarting and Shoemaker as well as Lawrence and Sotlar, splitting time at DH, will be relied upon to flip the lineup back over.
“We will need to find our identity offensively and trust the guys in front of us and behind us in the lineup to do the required job to help us score runs,” Wolf said on what he wants to see from his team at the plate. “When I talk about finding our identity, I mean every lineup is a little different every year in terms of what the strengths are going to be and what you can learn to take advantage of.
“We have some guys who have the ability to drive the baseball into the gaps and maybe over the fence a few times. But, I think, ultimately, we are a very athletic group, which stood out to me watching the jamboree the other night. … I think that is certainly going to be a component of our offense—really trying to fight at the plate, not give in, and use our athleticism and speed. We have to develop that identity up and down the lineup … to understand what we are capable of doing in each at-bat.”
With so much experience coming back, the Eagles have strong expectations for the upcoming season—as any team would. Of course, the ultimate goal is to peak in the postseason. Including an always-daunting Central Ozark Conference slate, Joplin’s strength of schedule, which is quite diverse, should have the team ready for anything they’ll face in the district tournament.
The Eagles currently have games scheduled against Hersey High School (Arlington Heights, Illinois), Bishop McGuinness (Oklahoma City) as well as William Chrisman and Truman from the Kansas City area. And, Joplin will also see a myriad group of teams in the early-season Tiger/Zebra Tournament in Oklahoma.
“As with the beginning of every new season, there is a lot of excitement and anticipation,” Wolf said. “We have a few different teams from a variety of areas around the state and country on the schedule and I think that always brings some energy to the season. We have had a string of really good practices to begin the year and we are looking forward to continual growth and improvement as the season progresses.”
Joplin opens the season at Webb City with a matchup against Bishop McGuinness at 5:30 p.m. on Friday.