By Russell Korando
This season’s Jefferson County Activities Association large-schools championship was decided by a triple play.
On May 2, Hillsboro scored single runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings and led host Festus 3-1 in the bottom of the seventh. First team all-JCAA pitchers Brandon Whitehead of the Hawks and the Tigers’ Andrew Douglas were locked in a pitcher’s duel.
Festus had runners on first and second base with nobody out. On a sinking line drive to right field, Nick Schmidt made a diving catch and threw to Hunter Voyles at second base to double off the lead runner. Voyles rifled over to Michael Brewer at first base to double off the second runner for a triple play.
The conference coaches had a tough choice to make between Hillsboro’s Nick Carter and Collin Mann of Festus for first-team catcher. They settled on Carter, a senior, who hit .354 with a .475 on-base percentage and recorded 117 putouts and 16 assists, with only five errors and three passed balls. Mann (.338/.453) had a 1.000 fielding percentage.
Hawk head coach Kevin Lucas, chosen by his peers as JCAA coach of the year, said Carter was the right choice.
“Nick is a game changer,” Lucas said. “Everything he did made our team so much better. He could shut down running games. I gave him the opportunity to call pitches. Not having him behind the plate next year is concerning for me. We will miss him.”
Hillsboro’s Michael Brewer also made the first team, duplicating the same honor from the basketball season. A forward on the hardwood, Brewer manned first base and pitched this spring, getting the call on the hill against Poplar Bluff in the district semifinals. For the season he hit three home runs, batted .444 and had a slugging percentage of .833. On the mound, he posted a 1.72 earned-run average over 20 and one-third innings.
“It’s exciting to see what he can do the next couple of years,” Lucas said. “He’s done so much in his first two years. He had a great basketball season and great baseball season. His family wants him to be a collegiate athlete and that’s very feasible for him in either sport. Eventually he’ll have to make that decision.”
Another basketball standout for the Hawks, junior Austin Fleming, made the first team in the outfield. Patrolling center, he had just two errors in 32 chances and batted .424 with eight doubles and two triples.
“When you’re losing your shortstop and catcher, you need to be strong down the middle and at least we’ve got Austin coming back,” Lucas said. “He gives you that threat to steal bases and he can go get a ball. He gives you everything he’s got in practice and games.”
Whitehead, 4-2 with a 1.81 ERA over 31 innings, was named the league’s most valuable player. The senior was a mainstay for the Hawks from his season-opening 1-0 win over defending Class 5 champion Francis Howell until the last start of his prep career, a 5-2 victory over Cape Girardeau Central in the district tournament.
That big upset in the season-opener “was a tone-setter for us,” Lucas said. “To beat Howell, that gave the kids the confidence we could compete with teams that have done well in the state playoffs.”
Festus, which earned its first district title in six years with a stirring comeback victory over top-seeded Potosi in Class 4 District 2, landed three players on the all-JCAA first team: Douglas, Elijah Richeson and Jake Leitner.
Douglas was the Tigers’ most steady arm this season. He led the team with 43 and one-third innings pitched, going 4-3 with an ERA of 2.10. At the plate he hit .385 and was one of seven Tigers to have 10 or more RBIs.
“Andrew pitched a lot of big games this year,” Tiger head coach Jeff Montgomery said. “He was the workhorse and he comes every day and does what you ask. I was happy for him to get to the first team. Last year he didn’t get the recognition he deserved.
“He had a lot of big hits. We used him sparingly offensively early. That was big for our team. He was driven this year to prove some things.”
Richeson gutted out a hamstring injury against Potosi, hitting a home run to put Festus on the board and earning the pitching win. He batted .373 and was 3-1 with a 2.12 ERA.
Richeson will attend Lindenwood University in St. Charles this fall on a baseball scholarship.
“He looks the part,” Montgomery said. “He can do a lot of things. He’s really matured a lot and grown the last four years (and is) a much stronger competitor. He competed well on the mound and that was a catalyst on our team.
“Without him we don’t win the district,” Montgomery added. “It was his time to shine.”
Leitner’s biggest game came against North County in the district semifinal. He scattered eight hits and allowed four runs in six innings to earn the win in the Tigers’ 7-4 victory. For the season, he hit .375 with 16 RBIs and won two games on the mound. Leitner can play first base and in the outfield. He’ll be a key player for the Tigers next spring as a senior.
“He handles pressure situations very well,” Montgomery said. “He was a true utility player, (doing) everything well. He does things in the course of a game that aren’t recognizable by everyone. He makes things look easy.”
After a 9-1 loss to Potosi on April 24, De Soto was wobbling at 4-7. But the Dragons’ pitching and hitting finally kicked into gear and they reeled off five straight wins. A pair of shutout losses to St. Pius X and Ste. Genevieve ended their season at 9-9.
Pitcher Craig Theiss, a four-year regular on the Dragon varsity, is one of several local players who have signed to play at Jefferson College next year. In 32 and two-thirds innings this spring, he engineered a league-best ERA of 1.29.
“We never put No. 1-pitcher innings on him until this year, and he ended being that guy,” De Soto head coach Matt Buechting said. “He did a great job of getting ahead of people. He established his fastball in and out. His walks were extremely low (nine). He wants to establish his fastball.”
De Soto’s Hunter Canada had a superb junior season, leading his team in batting average (.403), doubles (eight) and RBIs (17). Buechting said after Canada had a tough sophomore campaign, the first baseman responded with a big season.
“By far he was our most consistent hitter,” Buechting said. “He was very consistent at the plate no matter who we were seeing on the mound. He drives the ball into the gap well. He batted No. 3 and 4 hitter this year. We’re glad he had the season he had.”
Although Windsor went 5-14 this spring against a tough schedule, the Owls could always count on senior Jake Davis, their sterling shortstop and No. 1 pitcher. The three-year varsity veteran hit .435 with five doubles and two triples. On the mound, he was 3-3 with a 3.36 ERA.
“He’s a smart guy,” Windsor head coach Jeff Young said. “He’s played at a high level and invested in his offseason work. Any time a kid puts in that kind of work, they’re going to be good.
“(And) he’s really good at math. He could play at the next level if he wanted to, but he wants to focus on academics.”