ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Shaun Craft, coach of the Marion-Florence/Peabody-Burns baseball team, likes what he sees when he comes to practice every afternoon.
In his first season after taking over from successful former coach Sean Spoonts, Craft thinks this year’s players enjoy every opportunity they have between the chalk lines.
“All the kids really show me that they want to play baseball and want to be here and improve their skills,” Craft said. “They’re just super baseball fans and it seems like, for the most part, this is their sport.
“From Day 1, they’ve been whooping and hollering and that attitude makes it a lot of fun for everyone.”
Craft said the opportunity to take over the helm of a program that Spoonts guided to new heights was one he couldn’t refuse.
“I wanted to be a head coach, and…when the baseball job opened up and they asked if I would be interested, I said of course I was,” Craft said. “I’ve enjoyed watching them play baseball and I always thought it would be a good job. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
This marks the debut of Craft as a head coach, but he comes with a long resumé of sports experience.
“I played baseball in high school,” Craft said. “After that, I played football and did track at Tabor College.”
Joined by assistant coach Jon Richstatter, Craft will attempt to mold 22 athletes into a championship team.
Last season, the Warriors fell one game short of the state playoffs, and finished the season at 13-8.
In the second year of its cooperative agreement with Peabody-Burns, the squad features 12 players from Marion-Florence and 10 from Peabody- Burns.
Craft said he tried to smooth his transition as coach by doing some preseason public relations.
“I actually went down to Peabody before the season started and introduced myself and seemed to hit it off really well with all of their kids,” Craft said. “Coach Richstatter has just been a tremendous help.”
Although graduation claimed the heart of the 2005 Warrior lineup, Craft still has three all-league players to form the nucleus of this year’s team.
Derek Benson returns for his senior season after earning second-team honors. Todd Woodruff and David DeForest earned honorable mention.
Gone from last year’s team is all-league starting pitcher Bryan Swenson and his 8-3 record. But Craft said this year’s staff will still have excellent depth.
Cody Weerts, who heads the list, “will be more of a closer and throw in relief,” Craft said. “He has good accuracy and decent speed.”
Benson, Woodruff and Clayton Garnica will be key contributors, too.
“Clayton is our only left-hander, so he’ll be really valuable,” Craft said. “He’ll provide a good change of pace, either starting or out of the bullpen.”
Other possible pitchers include Clinton Jeffery, Calvin Jeffery, Nathan Bishop and Aaron Burnett.
“Burnett probably has the strongest arm on the team, but he’ll do most of our catching,” Craft said. “We have to find a place for him to be on the field.”
Craft said he already has a feel for his lineup: Garnica at first base, Weerts or Clinton Jeffery at second, Woodruff or Weerts at shortstop and DeForest at third base.
The outfield seems to be set, too, with Benson in left, Calvin Jeffrey in center and Bishop in right.
“But we have pretty decent depth, so when we need to bring someone in to pitch, we have plenty of guys to come in and take their fielding position.
“I feel really good about where we stand with our players and positions.”
Craft said the strength of his team is experience.
“Our main strength is in the number of players we have returning and the great upper-class leadership we have,” he said. “They’re ready to work everyday and they make sure everybody else is on task. If they’re not, they’re right there ready to remind them of our ultimate goal this year, which is to get to the state championship.”
For the most part, Craft said the transition to a new coach has been smooth.
“We still need to get back into the baseball routine,” he said. “We have to make sure we get our responsibilities down and get back into baseball shape.”
Mild late-winter weather has also been a blessing.
“We’ve only had one day where we had to practice inside,” Craft said. “We’re getting a lot accomplished and we were able to get some extra practice in and get some more one-on-one coaching.”
With their numbers, the Warriors will be able to field a junior-varsity team, which already has a schedule of 12 to 14 games.
“That’s really a big deal,” Craft said. “It helps tremendously to get these kids experience in games that might not otherwise see varsity action.”
Based on last season and returning players, Craft said Lyons and Nickerson seem to be the front runners for the Mid-Central Activities Association title.
Whether the Warriors win a championship or not, Craft said his squad will represent their communities honorably.
“We’re going to be a class-act team,” Craft said. “We want to demonstrate that both on and off the field and be ready to play every game.”
The Warrior varsity sees its first action Friday, March 31, with a home-field doubleheader against Haven. Game 1 will begin at 4:30 p.m.
“We won’t have more talent than other teams, but I believe with our attitude and work ethic, we’ll have enough to get the job done,” Craft predicted.