The standard for Strafford baseball has been high. The program went 17-9 last season, a win plateau the Indians haven’t fallen below going back a handful of seasons. Two years ago, they reached the Class 3 state title game.
Inevitably, a rebuild year was coming. The Indians graduated seven seniors. Among them were Tony Caldwell, a second-team all-state pitcher, as well as Dillon Hester (.356 batting average) and Wyatt Maples (.364 BA). But that chance to rebuild was relished by those who would have captained it.
“I was just excited to get to lead those young players,” Strafford senior Mason Foley said. “We have a young team, so being an upperclassmen and getting to lead them was going to be exciting. I knew we’d be a hard-working team with a lot of upside to piece together.”
An all-state infielder and pitcher who led last year's team in steals, Foley was one of four seniors returning to this year’s squad.
“They were four high-quality kids who would come and work hard every day,” Strafford head coach Shane Pierce said. “Those first practices were good, but something we had to work on was communication. … It’s hard to find good leaders. After watching ‘The Last Dance’ [Sunday] night, it reiterated how hard it is to be a leader. It’s tough. ... I think this group would have searched for it.
“Mason was our guy; he’s just not a super vocal kid. He was going to have to learn how to do that. I was looking forward to seeing who was going to step up next.”
Foley, headed to Drury University to play collegiate ball, was also set to transition as a pitcher from his closer role with those like Caldwell (Jefferson College) departing from the rotation.
“I’ve been in the closer role since I was a freshman, but this year I was going to have to step up and throw some more innings,” Foley said. “I was just trying to throw as much as I could in the offseason to get my arm in good condition. Mentally, you’ve got to go out there and compete. This past summer, I didn’t really start, but we probably played 50 or 60 games, so I was at least throwing a whole bunch. I’d say that still helped me. I was really excited to [start].”
Southpaw Nick Oliver was penned in as the No. 1 starter after posting a sub-3.00 ERA in 2019.
“Left-handed pitchers in high school, if they can throw strikes, they’re going to win a lot of games. … Nick was our [ace] going in,” Pierce said. “He had a chance to pitch in college and is still kind of weighing those options. … I’m hoping he does, because he can play.”
Jacob Stow is another senior who pitched at the junior varsity level and was expected to eat innings for the Indians and also compete for time at first base when Oliver toed the rubber. Scout Askren, who recovered swiftly from an ACL surgery, is another southpaw who would have seen time on the mound while also competing for time in a young outfield.
A standout in football and basketball, junior Vance Mullins, is one that Pierce should have back next year.
“Baseball is [Vance’s] third sport, and it’s fun to see, because he doesn’t always have a lot of success, but it’s fun to watch him work through it because he’s so mentally tough,” Pierce said. “Every year, I hope he’s going to come back. He’s a great center fielder.”
Hunter Allen is another junior who gives Strafford versatility with his ability to play most anywhere in the infield and the outfield as well.
Looking younger, the Indians will hang future hopes on the likes of Ben Peterson, a sophomore, and freshman Dakota Ames.
“Ben was possibly [a] third-base, first-base kid who works hard and we weren’t sure [where he’d play], but we were looking forward to seeing how they fit in,” Pierce said. “Dakota could have been our No. 2 or 3 pitcher as a freshman. He’s just a strong, competitive kid. We were counting on him playing some short and third, then put him in the outfield and he looked good. We’ll have to wait to see where they fit in.”
Pierce will have his candidates behind the plate returning in 2021, starting with current junior Kyle Schatzer. Behind him, the Indians have sophomore Lane Boswell.
“If we could develop [Lane] enough, we could get Kyle out in the middle infield,” Pierce said. “He’s developing into a good catcher and he’s going to be great in the future.”
Strafford's play without the bats likely would have determined their success this year.
“In the few practices we had, to be honest, we really struggled offensively,” Pierce said. “We would have had to hang our hat on defense because we wouldn't have a lot of [pitchers getting] strikeouts. Most of our practices would have been a lot of defensive work every day. I know when I was in high school, that’s what we were centered around. We would go two or three days without picking up a bat.
“This team was super coachable, and in all honesty, I don’t think these kids would have said a word about [not picking up the bat]. They would have stayed after it, and the guys who needed to hit would have stayed after it. Those older guys knew how it worked and I think they understood.”