The spring sports season was a three-month roller-coaster of surprising performances for Tri-Lakes area teams.
There were teams expected to be powerful who were (Forsyth softball), and individuals who lived up to their preseason hype (Branson pole vaulter Reagan Ulrich).
But the biggest news came from teams that came into the spring with little expectation, that surpassed that many times over.
It started with Hollister’s baseball team recording one of the biggest victories in all of the 2018-19 sports season, and included a school collecting its first state championship in any sport – in only its second season of fielding a team in that sport.
Here is the final installment in a review of the top sports stories over the 2018-19 school year in the area …
A perfect storm all came together for the Hollister baseball program, which turned a season of uncertainty into a season to remember.
The Tigers were led by a new coach – assistant Trent Oxenreider took over for Hall of Famer John Burgi – and a slew of young, untested players.
The team showed flashes of its potential early in the season, with a 9-2 victory over an Ava team that finished 18-6, plus wins over Logan-Rogersville and Fair Grove.
Those flashes turned into a full-bore storm at the end of the season, with a five-game winning streak – including the championship at the Forsyth Tournament – to close the regular season.
The big highlight came in the semifinals of the Class 4 District 11 Tournament, when the host Tigers turned back Aurora, the reigning state champions and top-ranked team in the state in Class 4.
Garrett Moody turned in the pitching performance of his life, crafting a complete-game gem, and Layton Morgan belted a huge two-run home run in Hollister’s 5-1 victory.
It certainly changed the narrative surrounding the program, and gave a huge spike to the expectations going forward.
“Those kids want more,” Oxenreider said. “You can hear Layton talk about it, and other kids. It got them fired up and pumped, but you could tell that now, they want something different. They want more.
“It’s kind of changed their mindset. Outside of a couple of big conference wins, that was the biggest win in their careers so far.”
For Morgan, it capped a sophomore year when he helped the Tigers’ football team go through a season of growth as the quarterback under first-year coach Rich Adkins, and led to Tri-Lakes Player of the Year honors on the baseball diamond.
Morgan played two positions on the infield, in the outfield and made a couple of pitching appearances.
He led the Tigers in hits (38), doubles (12), triples (5), home runs (4), RBIs (44), batting average (.404) and slugging percentage (.766).
Hollister’s season ended one day after the victory over Aurora, with a loss to Springfield Catholic in the district finals.
But the impact of the Aurora game endures, with six of the nine regular starters returning for next season.
“For the team, I’m planning to make it out of districts, because second is not good enough anymore,” Morgan said. “We’ve already been there.
“As a player, I just want to keep improving and make my team better. I need to get faster and work on my arm strength. Whatever helps the team out, I’ll do.”
BLUE EYE TRACK
The story of the Blue Eye girls’ track team this spring is something that could have come straight from a movie set.
The small school on the Arkansas border was in its second season of track, with a big group of talented young athletes, complemented by a recruiting effort that drew out a group of upperclassmen with success in other sports at the school.
That crew didn’t even have a track to train on at the high school, relegated to working out in the high school parking lot, in the hallways or at the home tracks of other area schools.
That didn’t matter, as Blue Eye won the first team state championship in school history, winning the Class 1 title in Jefferson City by a single point over Worth County.
Senior Kenzie Hobbs was the only full-time runner on Blue Eye’s inaugural track team in the spring of 2018. She was back for the 2019 squad, with reinforcements.
“We have to make it work,” Hobbs said at the state meet. “A lot of people look down on us because it’s only our second year and we don’t have a track. To be able to come out here and do this, it’s exciting.”
Blue Eye won the 4x100, 4x200 and 4x400 relay events, and finished third in the 4x800 relay.
Freshman Riley Arnold was second and twin sister Avery was fourth in the 1,600 meters, freshman Kyla Warren was third in the 200 meters, Avery Arnold was fifth in the 800 meters, and in the 3,200 meters, Riley Arnold was fourth and Braylynn Siercks was sixth.
Add it all up, and it was enough for the Lady Bulldogs to celebrate at the top spot on the podium.
“When we started this year and had other girls come out for track, we really wanted to challenge each other,” Hobbs said. “I think originally we did it because we all played basketball together and had a lot of success and we all enjoy it a lot.
“They are all my best friends, and we all come out and really support each other. That’s very cool.”
C OF O BASEBALL
The Bobcats used a late-season surge to make this a season to remember on the baseball diamond.
After dropping two consecutive games at the Association of Independent Institutions Tournament in early May in Lawrenceville, Georgia – the final game a 17-0 loss to Fisher College – C of O sat with a 23-29 record.
The Bobcats still qualified for NCCAA Regionals, where they split four games to get a spot in the NCCAA World Series, then won three of their first four games at the World Series.
C of O’s season ended with a 17-4 loss to Concordia (Michigan) in the semifinals.
Four Bobcats were named to the NCCAA All-Region Team: Jay Kaufman, Westin Gann, Max Pulley and Ryan Daggs.
Reagan Ulrich’s junior season for the Branson track and field team started with some big expectations.
Or high expectations, to be more accurate.
He topped those and kept on going, setting a school record and Central Ozark Conference meet record in the pole vault and going on to win the Class 5 state championship in May.
Ulrich was second in the state as a sophomore, clearing 15 feet, 9 inches, and bettered that with a height of 16 feet at the state championships.
The season to remember started at the Branson Invitational in March, marking a school-record effort of 5 meters (about 16 feet, 4 ¾ inches).
“I’ve been doing a lot of practice, working to get over those heights in practice, just getting over the bungee,” Ulrich said. “I definitely had the confidence to get this done.”
Later came the COC meet, where Ulrich set the league record by topping 16 feet.
All in all, a pretty remarkable and historic season. And to think Ulrich has another year left to reach new heights.
A season full of memories ended with an unlikely thud for the Lady Panthers, a 3-0 home loss to Purdy in the Class 1 sectional round.
But that doesn’t do anything to diminish what Forsyth accomplished in the spring.
Forsyth won 13 consecutive games at one point, finished with a 22-4 final record and spent much of the season ranked No. 2 in the state in the spring softball rankings.
The sectional loss hurt, but the team can take solace in the fact that only two seniors are lost from that lineup – one designated player and another who plays in the field.
Returning will be all-everything catcher Emily Shipman, who put up some asinine numbers as a junior.
She hit .644 with 58 hits, 25 of them for extra bases, four homers, 53 RBIs and 51 runs scored in 28 games.
“It’s incredible, from a talent perspective,” coach Collin Lyerla said. “Her ceiling is really, really high.
“With all that hype, she still works so hard. That is the difference-maker. With a lot of high school kids who have that potential, you see them rely on that and not push themselves as a player.”
Having her – and pitcher Rachel Essary – as returning leaders for this team, has Lyerla and the rest of the Forsyth program already looking forward to next spring.
“If (Shipman) will just get out of her way sometimes, I think she has potential that she hasn’t even achieved yet,” Lyerla said.
“And that’s insane.”
Freshman Emily Young announced her presence with authority on the area track scene this spring, qualifying for the Class 3 state meet in three events.
Young finished eighth in the triple jump, was 13th in the 400 meters and ran on Hollister’s 4x200 relay team that was disqualified in the preliminaries.
“I’m extremely happy, it’s really insane,” Young said after wrapping up her duties at the state meet. “I had no idea I would be able to do any of this. I just did what I was told to do, and it ended up paying off.
“I have some great coaches and a lot of great athletes to compete against, so that helps a lot.”
Young was joined by teammate Craigon Bradley in the 1,600 meters (she finished 10th), and Taylor Sellers in the 3,200 meters (she was 14th), and the 4x800 relay team was ninth.
For the Hollister boys, Cam Shook finished seventh in the 800 meters and also ran the 1,600, and Tristan Parker was 15th in the long jump.
REEDS SPRING TRACK
Senior Shelby Strailey only competed for two years for the Reeds Spring track and field team.
But what a two years they were.
Strailey is headed to Missouri Baptist for her college track career, after she was a qualifier in three events in the Class 3 state meet in Columbia in May.
Strailey medaled in all three events, as part of the sixth-place 4x200 relay team and fifth-place 4x100 relay foursome. She also was seventh in the 200 meters.
“It went well, but it was tough being the last time for all of us together,” said junior Izzy Erickson, who ran with Strailey on both of the relays. “It was crazy how much we’ve accomplished together, and how well we were able to work as a team.
“It will be very different. I don’t think we can ever really mimic Shelby, because of how much we bonded together. Having one girl leaving is the toughest part.”
Erickson also ran in the 300 hurdles and 200 meters at state, and Sean Gross ran in the 800 meters for the Reeds Spring boys.
S OF O TRACK
Junior Victoria Smith was left to look for the future after she placed in two events at the Class 1 girls’ state track and field meet – taking sixth in the 200 meters and seventh in the 100 meters.
“All summer long, I’m just looking forward to the season,” Smith said. “Even in school, I’m thinking about how we’re ‘this many’ days closer.
For the S of O boys, Gideon Martin medaled in two events at the state meet, finishing fifth in the triple jump and seventh in the long jump.
Martin also ran a leg on the team’s eighth-place 4x800 relay team, and freshman Titus Thompson was second in the 1,600.
The impact of the move-in of Kendrick “Bug” Bailey was felt in girls’ basketball over the winter, and especially in the pitching circle this spring.
Bailey led the way as the Lady Tigers finished with a 12-7 record and runner-up to Forsyth in the Class 1 District 9 Tournament.
Hollister won nine of 10 games before a season-ending 6-1 loss to Forsyth.
The Lady Tigers enjoyed a quality victory over Wheaton and threw a major scare into Forsyth in a regular-season game.
“We’ve come a long ways as a team,” coach Willy Morgan said. “It’s the group of kids that I have – they buy in and they work hard and there’s kind of a culture starting now.
“We’ve been here, and now we have those expectations. I really thank my seniors for helping to create that culture, a lot of it is on them.”
It was a season of rebuilding for the Pirates.
The highlight coming early in the season, in a 6-5 victory over a Strafford team that was coming off an appearance in the Class 3 state championship and finished with a 17-9 record this spring.
The Pirates ended with a 6-19 record, but the play of a quartet of first-teamers on the all-area team was a highlight.
Graham Funderburk was a standout on the mound and in the outfield for Branson, finishing with a .414 batting average, with two doubles, 10 RBIs and 16 runs scored.
He struck out 43 in 36 2/3 innings pitched, with a 5.54 ERA.
Brady Brashers went 3-3 on the mound, striking out 23 in 42 2/3 innings and finishing with a 4.10 ERA. Kelly Henson was a stellar defensive force in center field, and Sam Lemley was a calming influence at catcher.
REEDS SPRING BASEBALL
The Wolves had some moments to remember during the spring season, but thanks to the wet weather in the Tri-Lakes area, there weren’t many opportunities.
Reeds Spring finished with an 11-8 record and had seven games called off and not rescheduled because of weather.
The Wolves lost to Springfield Catholic in the opening round of the district tournament and had three players named to the all-area team: pitcher Justin Locke, catcher Cole Watson and infielder Seth Stamps.
The Panthers finished with an 8-15 final record in coach Byron Richardson’s second season as coach, but they saved their best for last.
In the Class 3 District 12 Tournament at Clever, Forsyth rolled to victories over Sarcoxie (15-0) and Marionville (13-6) before losing to the host Bluejays in the championship game.
Panthers making the all-area first team were infielder Kaleb Etheridge and utility player Jake Jordan.
The Lady Pirates went through a rebuilding season, finishing 7-14-1. The high point was a 3-2 victory over a Marshfield team that posted a 15-9 final record.
The young players on the roster made strides, though, leading to reason for optimism in the future.
Sophomore Molly Duncan was a first-team selection for the All-Central Ozark Conference and All-Class 4 District 9 team, with sophomore Elaina Knipple a second-team All-COC and all-district pick, and junior Katie Jaeger a second-team all-district selection.
The Pirates started the spring season on a high, with dual-meet victories over perennial powers Springfield Catholic, Springfield Kickapoo and Ozark as part of a 4-0 start.
Two impressive dual wins over Nixa came later in the season, including one in the Class 2 District 11 Tournament, part of an 11-3 final record for coach Sean Kembell’s team.
One of the season’s most memorable moments came in the 5-4 dual victory over Ozark, when Mason Carlson survived two match points to win his match in a tiebreaker, and give Branson the dual victory.
“We’re a team that is constantly improving, and I think that we’re humble enough that they are going to see this as something that was closer than it could have been,” Kembell said. “It was really fun, the heroics were magical and it was a moment that Mason will never forget.
“We easily could have lost.”