With only four returning starters and 17 of their 21 players not having meaningful varsity playing time, the New Bloomfield Wildcats will use this season to gain experience and hopefully improve over the next few seasons.
Of those returning starters, sophomore shortstop/pitcher Braden Jackson is the only underclassman, and he was a starter for the Wildcats in every game last season.
Jackson's performance last year led to him earning second-team all-conference. And he did it in what New Bloomfield baseball coach Justin Forsythe called the "extremely tough" Show-Me Conference.
"He's gonna move over to shortstop for us this year," Forsythe said. "And then he'll be another guy who's going to expect big things out of him on the mound -- be able to control some games for us on the mound and help us out there. He's gonna play short(stop) and hit in the two-hole or three-hole and hopefully continue what he was able to do last year as a freshman and take it to some new levels."
In addition to Jackson, New Bloomfield's other returning starters are left fielder/pitcher Brendon Carter, center fielder Dorian Meyer and catcher/designated hitter Gavin Thomas.
Of those three, the outfielders -- Carter and Meyer -- are seniors.
Carter has been a four-year starter for the Wildcats, and he's someone Forsythe sees as a leader for the team this season.
"He's been through the wringer and gauntlet of our conference schedule and then just the schedule in general that we usually play," Forsythe said. "...We're expecting big things out of him, defensive, offensively, leadership role -- everything. It's kind of his turn to step up and lead this team in the direction that we want to go and try to reach some goals that we set for ourselves."
The other senior outfielder, Meyer, has been moved around in the lineup, though he thrived most in the DH spot.
"He's had an opportunity to take over the (DH) role in the lineup and hit," Forsythe said. "He had a pretty solid fall for us, and so it's just his opportunity to kind of stand out in his last go around taking that spot."
Meyer's hitting will be needed, as New Bloomfield isn't the most outstanding offensive team, but it does have a solid defensive unit, according to Forsythe.
"We're gonna have to be able to play some defense to keep ourselves in some games and give ourselves a chance to put up some crooked numbers in some innings and be on top of people," Forsythe said. "We're just going to use it to our ability to try and make the simple play and be consistent defensively and give our arms the opportunity to get out and find ways to get the ball to the plate with some arms. And just find bats and play defensively, hopefully behind us."
New Bloomfield will need to do well in all aspects of its game, as the Show-Me Conference has some of the most talented teams in the state.
"The Show-Me Conference is a gauntlet," Forsythe said. "Any given night, you're gonna get an arm that's gonna run you up there and touch 90, and you're gonna have to be able to handle it. You're gonna get some teams who offensively are juggernauts at this point."
Last season, the Wildcats finished in the bottom half of the eight-team conference. New Bloomfield's coach shared how he expects the conference to shape up this season.
"This year, with Russellville being extremely good, probably one of the favorites in Class 2 again," Forsythe said. "St. Elizabeth is maybe the favorite in Class 1.
"And then you're gonna have a South Callaway team that is kind of where we were a couple of years ago with just playing so many young kids, but all those kids are now juniors and seniors. And (South Callaway coach Heath Lepper) is going to have a ton of experience at the varsity level.
"And then you get Fatima, who's Fatima. They're gonna be talented, they're gonna be skilled, they're gonna be tough, and they're gonna be able to pitch it and hit it, and you got to be able to keep up with them.
"I think it's going to be a really good year for the Show-Me Conference. You're going to have lots of teams that are gonna get some major accolades potentially, with some really high-end players individually on some rosters."
While New Bloomfield's district assignment wasn't released at the time of the interview, Forsythe expects it'll have a challenging group of district opponents.
"Us, Eugene, Russellville, Iberia: In the last two years, three of the top five teams in Class 2 have been in our district," Forsythe said. "People could argue last year that Russellville and Eugene played in the state championship game, the district championship game -- have been arguably one of the best high school baseball games that I've seen. ...We're going to be prepared or have to be ready to be able to handle ourselves, and hopefully, we can do that."
That preparation has already started with spring practices beginning last week.
New Bloomfield will get its season underway when it participates in the Callaway County Jamboree at 10 a.m. Saturday at South Callaway High School in Mokane.