by Michael Smith
Coming into the 2022 season, Grain Valley head baseball coach Brian Driskell said he doesn’t know what to expect.
Last season, his Eagles finished as state runner-up in Class 5 and graduated five out of its nine starters from that team, including three all-state players. This season, the team normally would have five returning starters, but Alex Snyder and Avery Garmon are expected to miss the season with leg injuries they suffered during basketball season.
Because of those factors, there will be a lot new faces starting for Grain Valley this season.
“Whenever you lose three all-state players, that’s tough to replace,” senior Nick Hooper said. “But there will be some opportunities for guys who were on JV last year.”
First baseman Kaden Jeffries, an honorable mention all-state selection last year, will lead Grain Valley’s returning players on offense and defense and will likely hit in the middle of the order.
Joining Jeffries as starters from last year’s team are Hooper at third base, left fielder Keagan Hart and pitcher Joel Palecek. Catcher Blake Prewitt also returns with some varsity experience.
Some newcomers who are expected to see significant playing time are catcher Brody Baker, middle infielders Michael Montgomery Jr. and Brek Sloan, right fielder Ian Kamstra and center fielder Jace Weems.
With that group coming in those returning, a big strength will be the speed on the basepaths. Grain Valley is expected to take an extra base when it’s available and be aggressive with stealing bases.
Jace Weems, Keagan Hart, Brek, those guys are fast,” Jeffries said, “except for me. I am slow.”
Driskell added his team will likely take a small ball approach in most games.
“Finding a way to move runners is going to be crucial for us,” Driskell said. “We are going to be on a lot of fields where the other team is going to be better than we are. So we are going to be better at details than they are to be competitive against those teams.”
At the beginning of the season, Driskell said there could be a lot of mistakes made on defense with so many new players entering the fray. On the mound, Palecek is the only pitcher returning with significant varsity experience. Other pitchers who could see a lot of this season include Cruz Haley, Pierce Bousselot, Hayden Hermon, Jeffries, Sloan, Montgomery and Kamstra.
“We are going to have some growing pains there, too,” Driskell said of his pitching. “We have been really fortunate to have at least one horse every year that can go out there and dominate. But this year, we don’t have that guy. Our guys are going to pitch to contact and keep the defense in the game.”
In addition to having a lot of new players to implement to the team, Grain Valley bumped up to Class 6 this year and will play bigger schools in the playoffs.
“We’ll be back with the big boys,” Driskell said. “There is a drastic difference in the caliber of baseball from Class 5 to Class 6. It makes it challenging. But our schedule always reflects a Class 6 schedule.”
Even after losing much of the core of the 2021 runner-up team, players like Hooper and Jeffries said they think this team can still make some noise in 2022.
“It’s definitely not a rebuilding year,” Jeffries said. “We are looking to make a postseason run this year.”
Grain Valley senior first baseman Kaden Jeffries fields a ground ball during practice on Thursday. Photo credit: Michael Smith