Joplin head coach Kyle Wolf, Seneca head coach Chris Yust, and McDonald County head coach Kevin Burgi were tasked with the challenge of bringing together 20 players from Joplin, Carl Junction, Webb City, Neosho, Seneca, and McDonald County in short time for the Premier Junior Championship, an elite baseball event known for showcasing talent on the rise.
The players were David Fiscus, Cade Carlson, Carlos Maturino, Tyler Ledford, Holden Ledford, and Luke Benfield (Joplin); Carson Johnson, Drew Beyer, and Cooper Cook (Carl Junction); Treghan Parker, Devrin Weathers, Wyatt Hodson, and Cale McCalllister (Webb City); Gage Kelley and Weston Durman (Neosho); Monty Mailes and Titus Atkins (Seneca); Parker Toney, Cole Martin, and Riley Boyd (McDonald County).
They formed the Southwest Missouri All-Stars on Sunday, July 14, and just one week later, they earned the Premier Junior Championship Gold Bracket title and completed a run of eight wins in five days. They became the first area team to win the Premier Junior Championship.
These young men from rival schools played a thrilling, winning brand of baseball — a 7-4 victory over Colorado Slammers Jenkins preceded by victories over Stix Mistler (10-2), Rawlings Tigers Velo (9-4), Stix Mistler (10-8), Arlington A’s Howeth (11-6), Stix North (1-0), Oklahoma Fuel (2-1), and Building Champions Luangamath (20-5). Southwest Missouri finished 8-1 with its only loss 7-3 to Rawlings Tigers Quatro, beating teams that have been together much longer.
“It says a lot about the talent in Southwest Missouri,” Wolf said. “It says a lot about the type of kids that we have here. Just as much as this tournament is about ability level, it’s also about a little bit of old-fashioned grit and that showed here in this tournament that Southwest Missouri kids are tough kids, both competitively and mentally. We faced adversity a couple times and we responded well. Again, I think that happens because the kids are playing for each other, playing for their schools, and playing for their region, something a little bigger than themselves.”
Southwest Missouri averaged just over eight runs and the offense produced 23 extra-base hits with 13 doubles, nine triples, and one inside-the-park grand slam. From leadoff man Weathers all the way through the lineup to Mailes, team speed played a role in the offensive success, as evidenced by 12 different players stealing at least one base. Other times, it’s just the mere threat of speed that can result in offensive production.
“Speed never takes a day off,” Wolf said. “We could run up and down the lineup, and that put so much pressure on teams. There’s a lot of plays that weren’t hits off the bat, but because of the pressure we were able to put on with our speed, it either forced them into a mistake or we were able to beat a throw. That just extends an inning and gives an opportunity for a big inning to happen. If we had runners on and we hit one of those gaps, it was really fun to watch us run.”
On the first day of the tournament, after victories over Building Champions Luangamath and Oklahoma Fuel, Wolf already talked about how much the Southwest Missouri players cast aside their egos and found a common good.
They bonded early on in perhaps an unexpected way.
“Old Chicago sponsored our jerseys,” Wolf said. “It brought us together a little bit. Quite honestly, when we got on the field early in the tournament, some of the other teams liked to chide us a little bit about our Old Chicago jerseys. After the first day, I planned on doing different uniforms and just wearing our school uniforms. The kids all went ‘Let’s wear these’ and we wore whites all through the tournament. They took pride in Old Chicago.”
They even called themselves “Pepparollies.”
Players from rival schools developed a greater respect for each other.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Wolf said. “When it comes next fall and we’re on the football field or next spring on the baseball field, those old rivalries will ignite. I do think they enjoyed each other’s company. They had a common bond. They did a great job. I heard some of the kids talking about how when they play next spring, we have to put on our Old Chicago jerseys underneath.”
Wolf touched on the genesis of the Southwest Missouri All-Stars.
“It started last summer,” Wolf said. “We talked about it and then I called some of the area coaches and said that I’m thinking about doing this. A couple weeks before the tournament, we sat down and started looking at a roster, who was available and who wasn’t, and pitchers. We had a couple guys who planned on playing that unfortunately through injuries and some other things weren’t able to play.”
Wolf thanked all the coaches for their work in laying the foundation with these players, naming Webb City head coach Flave Darnell, Carl Junction head coach Jake Stevenson, and Neosho head coach Danny Powers in addition to Burgi and Yust.
“They do a tremendous job coaching their kids,” Wolf said. “We were able to step in and just get rolling. A lot of that credit goes to them and a lot goes to the kids for being willing to play the game and communicate with each other.
“Coach Burgi and Coach Yust were awesome all week, just in terms of their help with lineups and different situations. Coach Darnell, Coach Stevenson, and Coach Powers, we were talking all week. By all means, it was a collective effort.”