By Jason Avery
After reaching the 2A state finals in 2016, Junction City was looking at a rebuilding season coupled with a move to 3A in 2017.
However, the Dragons won 25 games, reaching the quarterfinals of the state tournament.
Now Junction City enters the 2018 campaign with a young roster, but one that gained a wealth of experience last year.
“We’ve got five or six guys returning from last year, which is a plus. It gives us a little bit of experience,” said Junction City coach Joe Paul Hammett.
“Defensively, I think we’ll be pretty sound. Pitching-wise, at the top of it, we’ve got some pretty good pitchers, and then we have some more that will hopefully come through for us this year.
"We’re not loaded with seniors. We only have three this year with five juniors, four sophomores and the rest of them are freshmen. Half of the team is either freshmen or sophomores, so we’re pretty young overall.”
As far as expectations are concerned, Hammett is hoping the Dragons will be in the hunt for a trip to Fayetteville.
“Here at Junction, our thinking is we want to be good enough to compete for a state championship each year, and this year is no different,” Hammett said. “We’ve got a lot of goals, but our ultimate goal is to win it all.”
In 2017, Keelan Hodge emerged as the Dragons’ ace on the mound as a freshman while also playing at shortstop, and Junction City has another deep crop of freshmen that could see playing time as the season progresses.
“We’ll have a bunch of young guys that will be counted on this year in the varsity games,” Hammett said.
“Some of those sophomores got to play last year, so this will actually be their second year, and that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s bad to have to play a freshman, but it turns out good later on because they got a little bit more experience.”
The Dragons have plenty of experience behind the plate with the return of senior Clay Jolley (.284 BA, 18 RBIs), who is starting at catcher for the third straight year.
“It’s our most experienced position with Clay back for his third year behind the plate,” Hammett said.
“He does a good job of handling our pitchers, and he’s just like another coach. He knows what I want, and he translates that to the field. It’s definitely a plus having him back there.”
Junior Bryce Ware (.299 BA, 15 RBIs) will be the backup catcher as part of his role as a utility player.
“He caught a few times for us and did a good job,” Hammett said. “I think we’ll be pretty solid back there with him catching. He’s going to be counted on to play a number of positions.”
Junior Jack Smith, who was the Dragons’ designated hitter last year, is slated to play at first base.
Kristian Hodge, also a junior, will play second base after getting playing time at third base last year.
When he isn’t on the mound, sophomore Keelan Hodge will man shortstop, and senior Brock McGoogan slides to third base after playing at second base in 2017.
McGoogan (.320 BA, 32 RBIs) finished second on the team in batting average and led the team in RBIs a year ago.
“He was one of our leading hitters last year,” Hammett said of McGoogan. “Hopefully, he will pick up where he left off.”
Freshman Gabe Richard is in the mix to play at second base and shortstop with Ware also a candidate to play at shortstop when Hodge is on the mound. Ty Disotell, a sophomore, could spell Smith at first base.
In the outfield, the Dragons have to find a replacement for graduated center fielder Robbie Roberson, who led the Dragons in batting average, hits and runs scored last year.
As the season commences, junior Cody Lee will be in center field, but is slated to move to right field once fellow junior Charles Hoof (.305 BA, 8 RBIs) returns when Junction City’s basketball season ends.
In left field, sophomore Tanner McLelland is in the mix, and the Dragons also have Disotell and senior Tyler Lunsford who can fill in at all three outfield spots.
The pitching staff has two key returnees in Hodge (8-2, 3.20 ERA) and Ware (5-3, 26 SO in 27 IP), but will need to find replacements for departed seniors Joe Lowe and Logan Disotell.
Behind Hodge and Ware, the Dragons will be counting on Ty Disotell, who started a handful of varsity games as a freshman.
When he isn’t catching, Jolley will see time on the mound along with McGoogan, Lee and Richard.
“We’ve got a bunch starting out,” Hammett said. “During the week with the pitch count, you’ve got to have a few more arms than what you used to have.
“We’ll just see how it goes early, then towards the end of the year, we always like to have three or four guys that we can count on.”
Hodge was outstanding down the stretch for the Dragons last year, and Hammett is hoping he can build off of his success.
“He ended up being our No. 1 towards the end of the year,” Hammett said. “He’s a year older and a year stronger. He’s definitely looked good throwing bullpens, and we’re definitely counting on him.”
Junction City won the 8-3A conference title last spring, and Hammett believes the league race will be highly competitive this spring.
“We’d like to think that we would be one of the teams that has a chance of winning the conference,” Hammett said.
“It’s a tough conference. Smackover is always a big game for us, and they always play well. It’s definitely good competition against them, but then you add Fordyce in there, and they had a young team last year and they’ll be back.
“McGehee has all of their kids back, and they played well towards the end of last year. I think it will be very competitive. Our conference will be pretty tough. We‘re looking forward to it.”
Should the Dragons reach the state tournament, they wouldn’t have very far to travel thanks to Smackover hosting the event, but Hammett said that is something that won’t be addressed until the regular season is near its end.
“We really haven’t mentioned it,” Hammett said. “We’re just going to try and get better each game.
“As we get closer to the district tournament, then we’ll start talking a little bit about regionals and the state tournament. It will definitely be a plus for us.
“Last year, we had to go to Harrison,. That’s a long drive, and we got rained out and had to stay an extra day to play the second round. It’s always better to be at home where you’re sleeping in your own bed.”
For the Dragons to be successful, Hammett said it starts with pitching, defense and timely hitting.
“I’m old school, and every year, players change, but the same thing has to happen,” Hammett said. “You’ve got to get good pitching and you’ve got to play good defense behind your pitcher.
“Then you’ve got to hit the ball a little bit. You’ve got to have some timely hits and execute offensively as far as running the bases, bunting the ball and moving people up. It definitely starts with our pitcher, then defense, then our hitting.”