After finishing district runner-up in a competitive district last season, South Callaway baseball returns most of its players from that squad and will look to have an even better campaign this year.
"We were extremely young last year," South Callaway coach Heath Lepper said. "As you go through your seasons from one to the next, you hope that all that investment of time and experience and reps pays off in the upcoming years.
"And I think it will with these kids. They work extremely hard. There's been a lot of pride taken in this district as far as the work ethic goes and subsequently leads to a lot of times postseason success. The groundwork has been laid for the last several years. You work your tail off, and good things happen at the end of the year."
This season, the Bulldogs return seven defensive starters and a few who saw "substantial" playing time.
Of South Callaway's returning varsity players, Jacob Martin stands out most as he made all-state as a pitcher last season.
Martin brings more than a talented pitching ability; he also adds experience and versatility to the Bulldogs. The senior has been a starter for South Callaway the last two seasons, and it could've been three if it weren't for COVID canceling his freshman season.
"He's kind of been our No. 1 on the mound for a couple of years," Lepper said. "He's hit at the top of the lineup. He's versatile; he can play any position. Last year, he probably played over half the positions out there. He filled in where we needed him at.
"He's gonna go play baseball at the next level. He signed to play at (NCAA Division II) McKendree. Baseball has been his No. 1 sport; he's played basketball and football here. But baseball has kind of been his passion, and we're excited to see how he ends his high school career."
Martin isn't the only multi-sport athlete on South Callaway's baseball team. There are a few other names Bulldogs hoops fans will recognize in coach Lepper's son, Ryan Lepper, along with JT Thomas, Dane Daugherty and some others.
"Ryan was a big piece of our basketball program this year," Lepper said. "The hope is that one sport makes them better at another. Having some of that pressure on his shoulders on the basketball floor hopefully pays dividends this year on the baseball field because he's gonna be a big part of this baseball club as well.
"JT, he's a three-sport athlete. He was kind of one of those utility guys last year. His work ethic is second to none. He works his tail off in every sport. He's a high-energy guy. He brings a lot of leadership qualities that we love here at South Callaway.
"Dane Daugherty, he's probably our No. 1 and No. 2 pitcher. He didn't get all the starts last year, but he's highly effective. He knows how to pitch. He's our centerfielder and probably will end up being our No. 2 (starting pitcher). He came in some games last year in some big spots and got the win."
There's more than just those four Bulldogs who stand out on this team, and you can mention more than those players, as the team has put in countless hours to practice and prepare for this season ahead.
"It's kind of hard not to admire all these kids with the work that they put in in the offseason," Lepper said. "Whether it be position changes, and it's a different skill set. Or whether it's watching them in the weight room or now, since we've got practice, finally getting to watch them on the field a little bit. They get to practice early, stay late, and take extra cuts."
Along with that preparation, Lepper mentioned South Callaway's players hold each other accountable while taking "pride in the fact that they practice longer than everybody else, or we try to."
All those traits bode well for the Bulldogs, who faced the Class 1-4 state champions last season, including two in Show-Me Conference games. And just like any other season, South Callaway will have some tough Show-Me matchups this year.
"It's one of the toughest conferences, period," Lepper said. "When you look at the guys that are coming out, and we can call it a small school conference, and that's fine. But when you look at where these guys are going to college and what their accolades are and who they've beaten -- you got several kids that are going to Mizzou.
"You got (St. Elizabeth's) Brock (Lucas), that graduated last year. I think you got (Charlie) Miller from Russellville, that's already committed there after he graduates this year. The (Caleb) Oligschlaeger kid from St. Elizabeth, I think that's where he's going. ...All these kids are going to be pretty successful in college."
Aside from so many college talents in the Show-Me Conference, the postseason results from last season and years past show how tough the competition is.
South Callaway experienced that in 2017 when it won the Class 3 state title yet didn't win the Show-Me Conference.
The same happened to reigning state champions, Class 1 St. Elizabeth, and Class 2 Russellville, as Fatima won the Show-Me Conference last season -- Fatima ended up losing 7-0 versus Blair Oaks in the Class 4 District 8 Tournament semifinals. And it wasn't a fluke loss for Fatima, as Blair Oaks lost 4-3 to eventual Class 4 state champion Southern Boone in the district championship.
Regardless of how challenging the conference may be, Lepper said he's "proud" to be in the Show-Me.
"I was born and raised in the Show-Me Conference," Lepper said. "That's the only one I've ever coached in, and I take a lot of pride in the Show-Me Conference. There's a lot of great baseball being played in Central Missouri, but more specifically in the Show-Me Conference."
Before opening Show-Me play at Linn on March 28, some notable matchups for South Callaway are its season-opening doubleheader against North Callaway and Kirksville on March 18 and the Borgia/Union Bank Classic on March 24-25.
The Borgia/Union Bank Classic, in particular, will be a tough test for the Bulldogs, as they face Union (18-2 in Class 5 last season) and Lutheran St. Charles (13-10 in Class 4) in pool play before the semifinal and placing games the next day.
That's just the start of a grueling slate of games for South Callaway this season. Along with the two reigning state champions in the Show-Me Conference, the Bulldogs face Class 3 champion Tolton and Class 4 title-winner Southern Boone.
During the previous season, South Callaway played three state champions in the regular season, then lost 5-2 to Tolton in the Class 3 District 7 championship. As a result, Lepper and South Callaway added more high-quality opponents to this season's schedule to be prepared for postseason games.
"They figure that if they go out and they work their butts off in the system that we've got, they're going to be competitive, they're going to be prepared whenever that big moment comes," Lepper said. "The hope is your preparation puts you in a position to be successful whenever it counts most."
Preparation has already started, with practices starting last week. And before the season begins on March 18, South Callaway will host the Callaway County Jamboree at 10 a.m. Saturday.