The St. James baseball team had one of their best seasons in 2017.
The Tigers had a record of 14-7 and finished as Co-Champions of the Four Rivers Conference. Head coach Shannon Snitker gives a lot of credit to his two seniors, Evan Grayson and Justin Marcee, for the teams success.
"I thought we had a very good season," said Snitker. "I thought my two seniors stepped up and played really well. They led us in every facet and did a great job mentally staying in ballgames when things weren't going the way we wanted them to in a couple of games. They did a great job of showing composure and poise when things were going right and taught the younger kids what winning was supposed to look like. I'm really happy with their efforts.
Snitker continued, "the season as a whole, I think we finished 14-7, which I don't know how long it's been since we've finished that well and getting a share of the Conference Championship. I have to be pleased...I wish we could've went a little further in Districts, obviously, but we played a pretty good game in Districts and ran into a really good opponent. Overall, (I'm) happy."
The Tigers ran into a tough opponent right out of the gate in Districts, as they faced Southern Boone in the first round. St. James scored a late run in the contest to force extra innings, but Southern Boone was able to sneak a run across in the eighth to advance in the tournament. Coach Snitker said he wants his players to learn from taking a tough loss so they can take the next step in 2018.
"(I want them to take away) What losing feels like and that it's not fun and hopefully help them work that much harder and give them a goal that's hopefully attainable next year," said Snitker. "I would love to get into the second round, a District Championship game. When you have nine to 11 kids coming back, the expectations are still going to be high. We're returning a big part of our lineup, all but two. The two we lost are obviously significant, but like I said, the seniors did a good job of showing them what hard work can do and how it can pay off if everyone is willing to work. With seven of them coming back, returning to the starting lineup. We had several returning to the starting lineup, we only had to replace two or three I think this year as well, but that's just more experience we'll have at the varsity level, seeing varsity pitching and those kinds of things this year. That's the expectation is to grow your program every year."
The two they will lose are definitely significant. Grayson was the MVP of the Four Rivers conference and rightfully so. The senior hit to the tune of a .538 batting average and knocked in 23 runs, while smacking three home runs, six doubles and two triples. On the mound, Grayson had a perfect ERA, while allowing just two unearned runs. He struck out 49 batters in 30.6 innings of work and allowed just 16 hits. Marcee was no slouch either. He had a stellar ERA of 2.06 and struck out 34 batters, while driving in nine runs at the plate.
"They've done that for me the last two years honestly and those have been my only two years as the head coach. I'm greatly going to miss those guys," said coach Snitker. "I felt like any time they had the ball on the mound, one of those two, our chances of winning were going to be very good. It didn't matter who we were gonna face, I just had that much confidence in them just because they'd worked hard and earned that spot. They did a really good job with the younger guys and winning breeds winning, so they showed the younger guys how to do that, which keeps games fun and entertaining and things like that. It makes baseball more fun, so you get numbers for your program and those kinds of things. It speaks well beyond what they did on the baseball field, as far as how they were as teammates and everything else. They kept everything positive...they did a great job of leading by example."
Coach Snitker knew he would be able to lean on his seniors this year, but he worried that they would put too much pressure on themselves, especially Grayson. The two proved that they had the mental toughness to thrive under pressure all season long.
"Honestly last year, (Grayson's) junior year, he was a very good baseball player as well. Honestly, the only thing I was worried about with him was trying to put to much pressure on himself to go to play at the next level and I thought he did a really great job of just playing within himself and approaching every single pitch in at bat in and of itself where he didn't put too much pressure on himself, didn't panic if he got two strikes, he was still a good hitter," said the St. James head coach. "He only struck out eight times I think the whole season and he was batting in the four hole, so he's seeing every pitcher's best pitch and whole repertoire. I think he just did a really good job of staying in the moment. And when he was on the mound, I think he did a really good job of doing the same thing. He showed a little passion, but curtailed his emotions enough that if there was a mistake behind him or something like that, he liked the challenge and just went about his business and took care of it. Justin, honestly, did the same thing. Those two guys are going to be greatly missed."
The Tigers' biggest hurdle this year was a hurdle that most teams had to clear: the weather. Coach Snitker said it was as difficult on him as it was on the players.
"That was new for me, as far as being a coach, because last year we were completely spoiled," said Snitker. "I think we had one rain out and we were able to schedule it right away pretty quick again and it didn't really effect our season, it didn't effect any pitching rotations or anything like that. This year was a little bit of a change and as far as practicing indoors over and over again, I thought the guys did a pretty good job of working on things that you can work on inside, a little communication, some base-running, a lot of hitting. Even when we could get outside, and I made them go outside when it was a little bit cooler and maybe some other teams may have been inside, they did a really good job of concentrating and focusing on what we could do with the weather that we were given.
Snitker continued, "the adjustment there, it only took us one or two games, but each time we'd have a long layoff, you never really know what would've happened if you played a regular schedule where the games were on the days they were supposed to be on with pitching rotation and that kind of thing. That was a learning experience for me, but I thought the kids handled it fairly well. I think we had one or two games that I didn't think we came and competed the best that we could compete in all season long, but the rest of them I thought we showed up and at least fought."
Coach Snitker had several games that stood out to him this season and unsurprisingly they were all Four Rivers Conference games.
"I thought we played really well against a good Sullivan team two times," said Snitker. "I thought we played really good against Pacific here, that's the first time we beat them in the two years I've been the head coach and I don't know when we beat them before that, they're always a very solid baseball team, a very well coached baseball team. Union is a good baseball team. Those teams are always nice when you can get wins there, so I would say those three games probably stick out the most.
The Tiger coach continued, "we didn't get a chance to go up against Rolla because of rain. I would've liked to see what we could've done against them as well, I know they're a good baseball team too, but again weather kinda messed that up. Those three games I would say are probably the three games that I'm most happy with, I guess it's four games technically because we beat Sullivan twice, once here and once there and then we beat Union and Pacific at home. I thought we did a good job of taking care of business in conference play, games that mean a little more than the non-conference games."
St. James did more than taking care of business within the conference. With their victory over Pacific, the Tigers claimed a share of the Four Rivers Conference crown. They also had a slew of players named to the All-Conference team because of their performances in those conference games.
"Any time you can get recognition getting six kids on an All-Conference team, if you don't win conference, you don't have that kind of representation on an All-Conference team," said Snitker. "If you take care of business as a team, the personal accolades come right along with it. That's something we'll talk about at the beginning of this next season, it's not about me, but the things will come personally if you can put the team ahead of yourself and we can win some baseball games like we have the last couple of years. We've been represented pretty well in the All-Conference voting in the last two years and if you want to keep that going, it's a team game and you've gotta win games to have other coaches recognize you as individually at the end of the season when that's when you want to be recognized."
While the seniors get a lot of attention, there were a number of players to shine for St. James this season. Snitker saw several of his juniors take major strides and was happy to see some freshmen and sophomores stand out.
"Alex Evans, he played left field for us most of the season, threw on the mound too some, I thought he improved greatly from his sophomore to junior year. Jaden Roark had a much better year at the plate this year than he had his freshman year and he's only a sophomore, so he'll be a junior next year," said Snitker. "Andrew Branson is a freshman I threw out in right field just because I knew he could hit a little bit and bunt and handle the bat well to help us out in the lineup to move runners and things like that and he did a pretty good job in the field for us. Those guys did a good job. Ty Lewis has been solid for two years, Drew Bouse has been solid for two years. I thought Drew kinda got robbed this year hitting-wise, he hit the ball really hard just a lot of times right at someone so he didn't get rewarded for the average that he should've had, but he hit the ball hard so I'm impressed with how he stuck with it. Most of the younger guys, Gunnar I thought had a better year this year than last year, so as long as we can keep improving year by year, have our individual numbers at the plate be a little bit better and do a really good job of communicating and playing good defense in the field, then our success can continue into next season.
Snitker continued, "As far as pitching goes, I think Alex Evans did a good job and I talked about those two already, but to be able to just hand the ball to Evan and Justin. Evan had a lot better year than he did last year and he had a good year last year on the mound and Justin had a really good year too, he just had more errors behind him."
Since the Tigers will be losing their top two pitchers, it can be easy to assume that Snitker felt pressure to force pitchers into action so that they'll be ready to take over when Grayson and Marcee leave, but that wasn't the case.
"Not necessarily to me this year, because I was fortunate as far as arms go," said coach Snitker. "I think I had seven or eight kids that I felt fairly comfortable throwing out there in just about any situation. Obviously Justin and Evan were the top two, but Gunnar was 3-0 on the season. He played some shortstop and was 3-0. Ty Lewis came in in a big situation in Hermann with runners on base and had to throw one pitch and got a conference win just because he's gritty enough to handle the situation. Alex Evans pitched some for me, Nick Wilson pitched some for me. I'm probably missing some just off the top of my head. Those guys besides Justin and Evan will be coming back and fill more of a role next year. Drew Bouse, he threw several innings for us, not a ton, but some. So we'll be relying on Drew and Gunnar and Alex Evans, Ty Lewis, Andrew Branson will probably get some in the mix next season on the mound, he pitches as well as playing infield and outfield, pretty much wherever you want him to go. Nick Wilson, again, is going to throw some, so we have arms coming back too. I've been fortunate, honestly, the two years that I've been the head coach with arms that have been fairly consistent when they get on the mound. I hope I don't have to run into a position where I don't have enough arms, because I don't think that'll make baseball very fun, but I've been fortunate the last two years."
Looking forward to next year, Snitker keeps it simple. He just wants to see his players continue to grow.
"Just to be better than you were last year, I think that's the whole goal in any kind of sport," said Snitker. "If you're gonna stick with something and come back and play another year, then your goal should be better than you were last year. If the group as a whole can continue to get better individually, it will make the team success better than it was last year. Really, that's all I can ask and I'm gonna have a little bit more time this next offseason to spend with them so hopefully they'll benefit from that and hopefully it'll help the baseball program out."