HOLLISTER – At the beginning of the spring baseball season, there were some common themes that ran through the Hollister High School program and sophomore Layton Morgan.
Morgan had seen only limited playing time as a freshman under Hall of Fame coach John Burgi.
There were not big things expected out of him as a sophomore. The consensus was that he was a year away from his breakthrough season.
The Hollister team had similar expectations.
The general belief was that the Tigers – in their first season under coach Trent Oxenreider – also may be a year away from being serious contenders in the East Division of the Big 8 Conference. The team had talent and potential, but was young and unproven.
Flash-forward two months later, and you’ll see that anyone who didn’t expect much out of Morgan was dead wrong. Same with those who thought Hollister would be in for a long season.
The quick ascension of Morgan and the Hollister program went hand-in-hand.
Morgan enjoyed a breakout season for the Tigers, and Hollister made a run to the championship game of the Class 4 District 11 Tournament, posting one of the biggest victories in recent memory for area baseball teams.
In the end, it left Morgan with Tri-Lakes Player of the Year honors.
Morgan provided the biggest blow in the Tigers’ biggest victory, taking advantage of a 2-0 count, belting a fastball over the middle of the plate over the center-field fence, for a two-run home run in Hollister’s 5-1 victory over Aurora in the district semifinals.
That’s the same Aurora team that had won the last two Class 4 state championships, was the state’s top-ranked team all season and came in with a 23-5 overall record.
The Tigers lost to Springfield Catholic in the district title game a day later, but the Aurora game still resonates.
“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 a team that has six of the nine starters returning for next season, all part of a large and talented sophomore class, it may have surprised some who opined that the 2020 season would be the one to watch.
Same with Morgan, who appeared in 10 games as a freshman in 2018, getting 18 at-bats and finishing with a .167 batting average.
Morgan admitted he had some doubts himself about how quick he would be able to get accustomed to the varsity game.
“I knew a little bit because I had a few at-bats last year, that I struggled in,” he said. “I didn’t really expect what happened this year.”
He came into this season setting some goals for his high school career. They didn’t deal so much with numbers, but with his place in the game among district rivals.
“At the beginning of the year, I was just wanting to become one of the best players in the district,” Morgan said. “I feel like I achieved that, but a big part of that was my coaches and teammates, always keeping me going when I would get down on myself. They would help me out no matter what.”
Morgan said it took until about the fourth weekend of the season – around the 10-game mark on the schedule – to realize he belonged and was ready to compete on the varsity level.
“That’s when I started getting more comfortable in my own skin and more confident with what I could do,” he said.
The numbers bear that out.
Morgan played in all 27 games, taking spots at two infield positions, in the outfield and even at pitcher.
He led the Tigers in hits (38), doubles (12), triples (5), home runs (4), RBIs (44), batting average (.404) and slugging percentage (.766). He scored 30 runs, and his OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) was a sublime 1.225.
“Obviously 44 RBIs from him out of the three-hole is huge,” Oxenreider said. “We surrounded him with guys who also could hit well.
“It’s one of those things where, ‘Who do you pitch to?’ and if you pitch around him, there are two other guys who were hitting really well. He was absolutely huge for us, hitting in the three-hole and driving guys in.”
The power Morgan supplied was another bit of a surprise. Having played on smaller fields as he came up through the ranks, Morgan had some home-run numbers in his past.
But four homers and 44 RBIs?
“I didn’t expect that at all,” Morgan said. “They just kept coming when we needed them, so it’s become part of my game.
“It’s just a big stress relief, and a burden off your back to know you squared one up. It feels so much different.”
In addition to the big home run against Aurora, Morgan delivered in a game at Forsyth during a seven-game winning streak to end the regular season and carry on into the districts.
The left-handed hitter turned on a pitch and sent it far, far over the right-field fence.
So far, it went over the fence, over a portion of the width of the football field that is adjacent to the baseball diamond and landed in the football bleachers.
Anyone who had doubts about Morgan’s power potential didn’t question it anymore.
“I knew when he tried to yank them, he had that power and distance,” Oxenreider said. “I didn’t know if he would show that this year, but I knew over time he would develop that, because he has really good hands and his bat through the zone is really good.
“I thought like junior or senior years, he would really harness that. This year was a surprise.”
It figures to move up the timetable on expectations for both Morgan and the entire Hollister program.
Having that many starters returning figures to do that – to say nothing of the mindset that comes with a victory like the one they had over Aurora.
“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.”
Morgan also has some personal motivation after Hollister lost to Catholic in the district finals.
A photo in the Branson Tri-Lakes News in the aftermath of that game showed the Irish celebrating at Tiger Field, and in the foreground was a dejected Morgan, who was retired as part of a game-ending double play.
“I printed it off and put it up in my room, it’s going to get me going for next year, and our whole team,” Morgan said.
All Tri-Lakes Area baseball team
Brady Brashers, P, Branson
Brashers emerged as the Pirates’ most effective and consistent pitcher this spring, earning half of Branson’s victories with a 3-3 record. In 42 2/3 innings of work, he struck out 23 against 11 walks, finishing with a 4.10 ERA.
Justin Locke, P, Reeds Spring
Locke was the top pitching threat for the Wolves, going 5-3 in nine starts and 11 appearances.
He struck out 49 and walked only 15 in 46 1/3 innings, finishing with a 1.66 ERA. At the plate, Locke hit .306 with 15 hits, seven RBIs and five runs scored.
Garrett Moody, P, Hollister
Moody was a two-way standout for the Tigers, finishing with 27 hits, 13 runs scored and 24 RBIs, part of a season when he finished with a .318 batting average. The high point came when he pitched a complete-game beauty in Hollister’s victory over two-time reigning state champion Aurora in the district semifinals.
His season line for pitching included a 3-1 record and 2.89 ERA.
Cole Watson, C, Reeds Spring
Watson was a stud behind the plate for the Wolves, playing in all 19 games and finishing with only one error, for a .994 fielding percentage. He compiled a .382 batting average, with 21 hits – seven for extra bases – to go with 17 RBIs and 18 runs scored.
Layton Morgan, IF, Hollister
Morgan was the most dominant player in the area this spring, playing on the best team in the Tri-Lakes area. He finished with a .404 batting average and 1.225 OPS, with 38 hits, 12 doubles, five triples, four home runs, 44 RBIs and 30 runs scored.
He dabbled on the mound, too, pitching 23 2/3 innings and finishing with a 2-0 record and a 2.66 ERA.
Logan Armitage, IF, Hollister
Armitage closed his career with a bang, belting a two-run homer that briefly tied the Class 4 District 11 Tournament title game against Springfield Catholic.
The Tigers lost the game, but Armitage’s final season stats are worth revisiting: 27 hits, nine doubles, two triples, two homers, 20 RBIs, 39 runs scored and a .310 batting average.
He displayed impressive range and a great throwing arm at shortstop, too.
Seth Stamps, IF, Reeds Spring
Stamps was an effective shortstop and leadoff hitter for the Wolves during his senior season, finishing with a team-high .440 batting average to go with 22 hits, four home runs and 17 RBIs. He drew 21 walks and was hit by six pitches, leading to a .636 on-base percentage and an OPS of 1.516.
Avery Weber, IF, Hollister
Weber made an impact at third base and pitcher as a senior for the 17-10 Tigers. He finished with 18 hits, scored eight runs and drove in eight, compiling a .265 batting average. On the mound, the right-hander worked 46 innings, striking out 30 while finishing with a 5-2 record and 2.44 ERA.
Kaleb Etheridge, IF, Forsyth
Etheridge was the top player on a Forsyth team that made a run to the Class 3 District 12 Tournament finals before losing to Clever. He finished with a .328 average with 17 RBIs, 15 runs scored, and compiled a 4.59 ERA in limited action on the mound.
Graham Funderburk, OF, Branson
Funderburk was the top two-way player for the Pirates as a senior, able to make an impact on the mound or in left field.
He finished with a .414 batting average, with two doubles, 10 RBIs and 16 runs scored. He struck out 43 in 36 2/3 innings of work, with a 5.54 ERA.
Konner Hatfield, OF, Hollister
Hatfield patrolled center field for the Tigers, using his speed to rob opposing hitters of extra-base hits throughout the season.
Offensively, he finished with 30 hits, six doubles, one home run, 15 RBIs and 29 runs scored. Hatfield drew 23 walks and finished with a .361 batting average.
Kelly Henson, OF, Branson
Henson was a standout defensive specialist in center field for the Pirates, with 47 putouts, one assist, a .952 fielding percentage and the ability to make highlight-reel plays. He added six RBIs and seven runs scored offensively.
Sam Lemley, utility, Branson
Lemley started the season as a pitcher for the Pirates, but quickly moved back behind the plate as a catcher. He was a steadying force behind the plate, finishing with four errors and a .967 fielding percentage.
He added a .247 batting average with six RBIs and nine runs scored.
Jake Jordan, utility, Forsyth
Jordan helped the Panthers make a late-season run, winning three of their final four games to finish 8-15 overall. He had 23 hits, 15 RBIs and 14 runs scored, finishing with a .307 average. He also worked 15 innings on the mound, striking out 14 and finishing with a 3.27 ERA.