By Jason Avery
After the ending of the 2017 season left a bitter taste in their mouths, El Dorado enters the 2018 season with a chip on its shoulder and a new coach.
Cannon Lester, who starred for the Wildcats before enjoying a standout career at Southern Arkansas, takes over the reins of the program with the departure of Sam Tyler.
“I think there definitely is a little chip there,” Lester said. “We’re doing things a little differently probably than they have in the past. We’ve got a senior-laden team, and we’ve got some young guys in there that are really good ballplayers, too.
“I tell them every day that they are probably one of the top two or three deepest teams in 6A. I really believe that. From one to about 16 or 17, I really trust a lot of them right now, so that’s a good thing. They’re all going to play a role in it at some point.”
The last several months have been a whirlwind for Lester, who was inducted into SAU’s Hall of Fame last fall.
“They’ve been busy to say the least,” Lester said. “We got moved in down here and had a new baby during the first week of school. Luckily, I had a lot of my guys this fall, so we got to do a lot of work. We got to lift a lot and do a lot of conditioning-type stuff. Now we’ve been going at it pretty good for about a month and a half, two months now practicing. We’ve been busy.”
Thus far, things have gone smoothly as the Wildcats have gotten adjusted to Lester’s approach.
“I think the main thing is honestly how good the kids are,” Lester said. “They’re really open and receptive to our coaching style, and we’ve changed a lot. I hope it will pay dividends, and I think it will eventually. It might be tough at the beginning, but they’ve been really open to everything we’ve thrown their way, and they’ve run with it.”
The team that Lester inherits is one with a great deal of experience, but has had postseason success elude them.
El Dorado lost both of its games in the 6A West Conference Tournament last year to miss the state tournament, and the Wildcats haven’t posted a victory in the state tournament since 2015.
However, the Wildcats have 14 upperclassmen on the roster with several underclassmen aiming for playing time.
At catcher, the Wildcats have a veteran in senior Micah Haney returning along with sophomore Jared Rhodes.
Lester said he expects the duo to split time behind the plate with the other getting at-bats as the team’s designated hitter.
“They’re both really good catchers,” Lester said. “To be good in high school, you need to have a backstop that you can trust, and we definitely trust either one of those guys to go out there and get the job done. I look forward to both of them catching a lot.”
At first base, the Wildcats have senior Brennan Smith back to help anchor the lineup.
Smith had a solid junior year, hitting .309 with 14 RBIs while showing a discerning eye at the plate with 20 walks.
“He’s steady and goes and does what he’s supposed to do,” Lester said. “Brennan brings that calming factor to it all.”
Noah Gaul, a senior, returns to man second base, and Lester believes he is a candidate to have a solid year for the Wildcats thanks to some adjustments he’s made at the plate.
“Starting with my brother (Eli) last summer, he’s really found some things in his swing,” Lester said. “He’s really come along offensively. He’s going to have a big year for us.”
The Wildcats have another returning starter at shortstop in junior Jacob Boshears, who led the team in RBIs as a sophomore in 2017.
Sophomore Chase Webb and junior Shaun York are candidates to see playing time depending on who is pitching, but regardless of who is at second base or shortstop, Lester thinks the group is a solid one.
“They’re all solid defenders and pretty good with the stick, too,” Lester said.
At third base, senior Daniel Johnson returns with Webb also in the mix to play there as well.
The outfield also has plenty of experience.
Junior Derek Jobe, who led El Dorado in batting average with a .356 clip with 13 RBIs last year, is set to start in left field.
In center field, senior Evan Chandler is slated to start, and like Gaul, Lester said Chandler could in line for a solid year at the plate thanks to the work he’s put in on his swing.
Leighton Turbeville, a senior, returns to play in right field.
“He’s probably got some of the highest potential on the team,” Lester said. “He’s really just starting to figure out what his body can do and what his swing can do.”
One thing that immediately jumped out to Lester when he first saw the Wildcats was their athleticism.
“That was one thing that when I came here, I was surprised at how athletic our guys were,” Lester said. “It was a good surprise. We’re a lot deeper and more athletic that I thought we would be. I’m starting to really like our team more and more every day.”
As far as the pitching staff is concerned, El Dorado also isn’t lacking in arms on the mound.
“So far, I think that’s probably what’s been the most pleasant surprise,” Lester said. “I think we’re going to run out about eight or nine guys that can go out any day. I don’t think we’ve got that guy that can throw zeroes every inning, but we’ve got guys that can go out and compete and throw strikes.”
Jobe stands to be the ace of the pitching staff after going 3-2 with a 3.28 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings in 10 appearances.
Behind the junior is plenty of depth that will need to soak up innings due to the graduations of Gage Otwell and Connor Cates, who combined to throw 80 2/3 innings last year.
Zach Morgan and Garrett Jeans will join fellow seniors in Johnson and Turbeville on the staff.
After Jobe, Johnson logged the most innings of the returnees with 22 along with a 1.27 ERA.
Of the seniors, Lester said Jeans and Turbeville’s stuff ranks among the best on the team, and Morgan in particular has a chance to play a prominent role.
“He’s going to log some big innings for us,” Lester said. “He goes out and competes. He never gets too excited, so I don’t think the big moment is going to bother him.”
Boshears is expected to see more time on the mound after pitching 2 1/3 innings as a sophomore.
Webb and fellow sophomore Reed Stone also will get an opportunity, and Lester had high praise for Stone’s arsenal of pitches.
“He’s probably got the most electric stuff on the team,” Lester said. “He’s not a big guy, but he’s really athletic and his arm works really fast.”
With so many players vying for innings, Lester said he will use the first week of the season to make sure everyone gets a shot.
“I’m going to try and throw 10 guys that first week,” Lester said. “We’ve got the depth, its just can the guys go out there and do it.”
With so much depth, Lester said it will be difficult to try and settle on a lineup.
“It’s going to be tough,” Lester said. “I think a lot of teams show up and they kind of know one through nine exactly who is going to be in there.
“For us, it’s not that way, but I think it’s good. I’ve sat up some nights thinking how tough it’s going to be to sit some guys on the bench because we’re really working a lot of kids. It’s going to be hard, but I think with that competition comes a lot of good practices.
“We’ve gotten to scrimmage a lot, which most teams don’t get to do. Because of our depth, there’s been some really high-leverage situations in scrimmages that a lot of high school teams don’t get to have. I think it will be good for us.
“I think it will take about a month to really put that lineup out there that will probably stick, but we’re open to whatever, and we’re going to throw them out there and hopefully they’ll go out there and compete.”
The scrimmages allowed the team to get reps with the adjustments that Lester and the coaching staff implemented.
“The main reason we did it was for the hitters and the pitchers,” Lester said. “Just to get those live reps, and we changed a lot of things in their swings and deliveries, even some things on defense, so we just really wanted them to get comfortable in those situations.
“Even if they failed with that new stuff, once you fail with something new, you usually go back to what’s comfortable, and I didn’t want them going back. I just wanted them to struggle through it.
“Sometimes success is a little struggle at the beginning, and we did. We struggled early on. We might even struggle early on in the year, but I think by the middle of the year, we’re really going to trust what we’ve done in practice and really play well.”
As far as the conference in concerned, Lester cited Sheridan and Greenwood as two teams to keep and eye on.
“I think Sheridan is always going to be there,” Lester said. “I think the majority of their team is seniors. Greenwood is going to be pretty good. They’ve got two or three of them that throw in the mid-to-upper 80s, sometimes in the 90s. We’re playing them in Conway early in the year, so that will be a good measuring stick for where we are.”
For the Wildcats to be successful in Lester’s debut, the first-year coach said his team must overcome adversity.
“I think we’ve got to figure out how to overcome adversity,” Lester said. “It sounds kind of cliché, but if you go back and look at the year they had last year, they beat some really good teams. They beat Sylvan Hills, they beat Ashdown, so there were some really good teams that they beat.
“But on the other hand, there were some really bad losses. It looked like when things were going good, they were a really good team, but when they went bad, we’ve got to right the ship. I think we’ve just got to be tough.
“We’ve done some workouts and some things in the fall and the spring to be tough. I think as long as we’re tough and overcome that a little bit, I think we’re going to be pretty good.”