Jenner Steele was entering seventh grade when coach John Burgi arrived on the scene and took over as the baseball coach at Hollister High School.
Steele was part of a class that would go on to be one of the most decorate ones in program history.
He and Burgi didn’t work together much in the beginning.
The way the schedules were arranged, when the high school team was at home, the junior high team was on the road, and vice versa.
But the veteran high school and college coach knew a little bit about the gregarious, barrel-chested catcher coming up the ranks.
“As a ninth-grader, we knew he could hit,” Burgi said. “We’d heard stories.”
The stories turned out to be true, as Steele went on to put together two of the most dominant seasons in recent memory, repeating as the Tri-Lakes Baseball Player of the Year.
“I think as far as hitting, he’s maybe the best hitter in southwest Missouri,” Burgi said.
It started immediately in his freshman season. He sent the first pitch he saw in the jamboree into the right-center field gap in Forsyth. Then in his first real varsity game – at Joplin when the school was opening its new field – he had a pair of hits.
Talk about announcing your presence with authority.
Pretty much everything Steele has done in the last two years has been done with authority.
Later on his freshman season, he hit a walk-off home run to beat Marshfield in the district semifinals. He hit .253 as both a freshman and a sophomore, then broke out as a junior.
That was all part of the plan.
“In my junior year, I knew that I had to start hitting well, really well, and my expectation was very high,” Steele said. “I felt down if I wasn’t hitting well, but I knew it was in me, and I just had to my job.”
Burgi saw the change from his first two seasons to his final two seasons of high school.
“In his freshman and sophomore years, he hit really well early,” Burgi said. “Then as pitchers got in better shape and started being able to locate, he struggled the last couple weeks of the year.
“Once he made it through the middle of the year and kept hitting and kept hitting his junior year, I think that’s when you got the idea he was going to be a really, really good hitter, and he wasn’t somebody who was just taking advantage of poor pitching.”
He exceeded virtually all expectations in his final two seasons for the Tigers.
Steele hit .452 with two home runs and 27 RBIs as a junior, then hit .390 with seven homers and 30 RBIs as a senior.
He felt the difference, too.
“My freshman and sophomore years, I was kind of just growing into the varsity level,” Steele said. “I wasn’t really playing as well as I could, I was just getting comfortable with it.
“My junior and senior years, I got comfortable. I felt like I had to score a lot of runs and have a high batting average for our team to win, and that’s true. I got on and then I had guys behind me who could score me.”
Even with the dip in batting average, the senior season was the most impressive of his career.
Every opponent knew about Steele and was determined not to let him beat them. He had to be patient and be willing to accept walks – 23 of them, to be exact – and not chase pitches out of the zone.
“It was very frustrating, and I was really mad at the beginning,” Steele said. “Even at the jamboree, I got walked a lot. I was getting frustrated.”
That led to a little pep talk from Burgi.
“He said, ‘If you get frustrated with it, you’re going to swing at bad pitches and get yourself out, which is what they want you to do. Just take those pitches and get on, and go up your next at-bat and hit the ball.’ ”
Being able to accept that mindset was a key part of Steele’s growth, Burgi said.
“He took advantage of his opportunities when people wouldn’t pitch to him,” Burgi said. “He drove in a lot of runs.
“I think it also shows something about his maturity that he did walk. I don’t think his first three years, he would have laid off those pitches that people were trying to get him out on.”
The payoff from his high school career is a future at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, with the storied and powerful Blue Dragons’ baseball program.
Two former Hutchinson players who went on to play at Texas A&M were taken early in this week’s MLB draft.
“I’m so excited. I’ve worked my whole life to reach that goal,” Steele said.
“I’ve always strived to play college baseball, and now that it’s there, it’s looking to the next level. Since I’m going to a juco, my next goal is going to be Division I. So I’m going to be working in the cage and on the field to get to that level.”
Playing Division I baseball, and even going beyond that, is not unrealistic, Burgi said.
“In that league, if he can prove he can hit 88-90 (mph), consistently, he can go a long ways. He runs better than people think he does, he just doesn’t like to run.
“His feet move pretty well. He played first as a freshman, and he’s going to throw the ball OK. If he can get another offseason of workouts in, and he can run a step more, you never can tell. A kid like that might get drafted some day.”
Steele is expected to primarily play first base at the juco level, but will be able to provide help at designated hitter, and as a third-string catcher.
Steele said his only regret from his high school days was not bringing a state championship to Hollister.
But the senior season was one to remember. The Tigers went from 15-13 in Steele’s freshman year to 12-16 as a sophomore, 13-13 as a junior and then 20-7 – with a co-championship in the Central Ozark Conference Small Division – as a senior.
And as Steele leaves Hollister, along with fellow seniors Jackson Bekemeier, Trey Dorlon, Landon Farquhar, Ethan Parks, Braedon Newell and Payton Weber, they are joined by Burgi.
Burgi announced his retirement from coaching midway through the season, choosing to go out with this group. He will continue as the school’s athletic director, with trusted assistant Trent Oxenreider taking over as coach.
“It’s the best memory you could possibly have,” Steele said of his high school baseball days. “Most of these guys, I probably won’t see them again because I’ll be gone, but it’s pretty awesome to be able to play with these guys and be coached by Coach Burgi.”
All Tri-Lakes Baseball Team
P-Noah Briley, Reeds Spring
A four-year starter and three time All-Central Ozark Conference Small Division pick, Briley set the school’s career records for wins and strikeouts this season. Briley finished with a 6-3 record and 2.50 ERA as a senior, striking out 60 in 50 1/3 innings of work.
P-Graham Funderburk, Branson
Still a junior, Funderburk established himself as the most consistent pitcher for the Pirates this season. The right-hander was a second-team pick for the All-Central Ozark Conference Large Division, compiling a 1.77 ERA in 13 appearances, going 3-2 with one save and striking out 37 in 31 2/3 innings.
P-Caleb Terrell, Forsyth
The senior right-hander earned first team All-Southwest Central League and second team All-Class 3 District 11 honors, finishing 5-4 with a 2.95 ERA. He struck out 48 in 59 1/3 innings, and also was a standout third baseman, with a .296 batting average, 13 runs scored and eight RBIs.
P-Jackson Bekemeier, Hollister
Bekemeier was the ace of the Hollister staff, compiling a 6-2 record in 10 starts and working a team-high 59 innings. He finished with a sparkling 1.07 ERA, striking out 54 against only 12 walks and yielding just nine earned runs.
C-Jenner Steele, Hollister
Steele put together another monster season behind the plate for the Tigers, repeating as Tri-Lakes Player of the Year. Steele finished with a .390 batting average, finished with seven home runs and 13 extra-base hits and drove in 30 runs.
IF-Skyler Harris, Branson
Harris was a consistent performer for the Pirates, playing third base and shortstop and earning all-district honors in Class 5 District 11. The senior finished with a team-high .307 average, with 23 hits, 12 runs scored and eight RBIs.
IF-Collin Cross, Reeds Spring
Another four-year starter and three-time All-COC Small Division pick for the Wolves, Cross tied the single-season school record for doubles (16), giving him a career-best 34. He hit .432 with four home runs and a team-best 25 RBIs.
IF-Seth Stamps, Reeds Spring
Still just a junior, Stamps has two All-COC Small Division honors under his belt, and was the Wolves’ most consistent offensive and defensive players. He hit .397 with 16 extra-base hits, three home runs and 23 RBIs.
IF-Zach Johnston, Branson
Johnston contributed as a shortstop and pitcher for the Pirates as a senior, with nine hits, two doubles and five RBIs at the plate, and on the mound, he had a 4.10 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 42 2/3 innings.
OF-Landon Farquhar, Hollister
Farquhar was a standout both in the outfield and on the mound for the Tigers. He hit .382 with seven doubles, 14 RBIs and 23 runs scored, and his pitching stats included a 6-2 record with a 2.74 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 38 1/3 innings.
OF-Darrien Woods, Forsyth
Woods was one of the main offensive weapons for a Forsyth team that finished 10-13, but threw a scare into eventual Class 3 state runner-up Strafford in a 5-3 loss in the district semifinals. Woods finished with a .310 average, with 18 hits and 14 RBIs.
OF-Garret Moody, Hollister
Moody was an often-overlooked contributor player for the Tigers, playing a solid left field and giving coach John Burgi another dependable weapon in the lineup. Moody hit .282 and finished with 20 hits, three home runs and 21 RBIs.
DH/Utility-Jacob Crouthamel, Blue Eye
Crouthamel is one of the most versatile players in the area, playing every position except catcher and first base. He earned first-team honors in the Southwest Central League and was a second-team all-district pick. He hit .367 with 22 hits, 13 runs scored and 14 RBIs for the Bulldogs this spring.
DH/Utility-Cole Watson, Reeds Spring
Watson is another junior who will be back to lead the Wolves next season, after an All-COC Small Division honorable mention campaign at catcher. Watson hit .471 with five home runs – both team-highs – and 17 of his 33 hits went for extra bases.