By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
It would be easy for the Stillwater High School baseball team to call this a rebuilding year. The Pioneers lost five seniors — four of which started nearly every game — and arguably one of their best pitchers and hitters in Ryder Jones.
But that’s the thing about Stillwater coach Tony Holt’s teams. They don’t rebuild — just reload.
“We lose good players every year,” Holt said. “We may have lost a few more than we had some other years as far as the sheer numbers of it. But we lose good kids every year and that’s the good thing about our program, we feel like we have good kids to step in. They just need experience. They haven’t had their chance yet but it’s their turn.”
The names may be different on the back of their jerseys but that doesn’t mean the expectations have changed. A year after making the state tournament for the first time since 2005, the Pioneers are not only expecting to return to state but hoping to make a little more noise.
“We expect to go every year,” Holt said. “Our goals are the same every year — not just to get to the state tournament, but to win the state championship. We feel the same way this year. It’s a different cast of characters, but we know that with our program and our coaches that our goals are the same.
“It really never changes. A lot of people say that tradition never graduates and that’s kind of the way I look it. We have a high level of expectations here at Stillwater long before I became the head coach and it’s still there.”
Stillwater does return three starters — outfielder Nathan Jolliff, third baseman Taylor Throne and Jon Littell, who was the designated hitter last season. Littell’s role will be slightly different this year as he takes over at shortstop for the departed Jones.
“His arm is back and healthy,” Holt said. “He’s been a two-year starter for us and he’s been very productive. He’s one of the top kids in the state already as a junior and has committed to Oklahoma State. Our expectations of him are high and Jon’s expectations high. ... We look for big things out of Jon. He’s produced his first two years and we sort of expect him to be that way this year and next year as well.”
Jolliff and Littell may be the ones providing the pop for the Stillwater offense, but Holt said he’s a little more excited to watch the development of his pitching staff — led by Carson Teel, who will join the Pioneers full-time once the basketball season is over.
“We’ve got Carson Teel back, a junior left-hander who pitched a lot for us last year, but we also have Nick Hollman,” Holt said. “We’ve got some kids who have a little bit of varsity experience coming back and we expect them to be leaders on the mound. We’ve got some young kids that have thrown pretty well in our scrimmages. They haven’t had a lot of experience, but we like our staff right now. They’ve done real well in scrimmages. They’ve thrown strikes and given us a chance to play behind them.”
Even though a lot of the players haven’t seen much varsity time, most of them got their first taste of success while biding their time on the bench.
It’s that kind of experience that Holt hopes will help ease the pressure of replacing five starters.
“A lot of kids that didn’t get to play last year were standing in that dugout during the regional championship in Stillwater and during the state tournament,” Holt said. “They got a taste of what that felt like and what it looked like. They want to go back and it made them work that much harder during the offseason.”
Like an old musket, it may take some time for the Pioneers to finish the reloading process — a process that begins with a doubleheader Saturday in Yukon.
“It all starts for real on Saturday and we’re excited about it,” Holt said. “I feel a lot better about our team after our last scrimmage against Santa Fe Thursday night than I did a month ago.
“We have a tough schedule as usual. We play the best of the best because we know that’s what we have to do if we want to get to where we want to be.”