North Callaway baseball returns seven starters from last season's team that went 12-12 overall and 5-5 in the Eastern Missouri Conference and fell 11-1 to eventual state champion Tolton in the Class 3 District 7 Tournament semifinals.
"All of these guys make up a solid core of players with a lot of varsity experience," North Callaway coach Zeth Lavy said. "The versatility of this group stands out as most play multiple positions well."
Two of the Thunderbirds' returning starters, Braydn O'Neal (utility) and Kyle Pennell (outfield), earned postseason accolades last season. O'Neal made all-district and first-team all-conference, while Pennell made all-district.
The pair led in most offensive statistics last season, showing how valuable O'Neal and Pennell are for North Callaway.
Last season, O'Neal recorded a team-high .403 batting average, .545 on-base percentage, 28 stolen bases, 30 runs and 27 hits, while Pennell tied for a team-high six doubles.
Another returning starter, Jordan Fishburn, tied Pennell for the team-high in doubles, and he was the team's leading defensive player, with a .976 fielding percentage last season.
Rounding out North Callaway's leading offensive players is Davis Woods, who hit a team-high two home runs. He also had a solid season on the mound, recording a team-high 35 strikeouts.
"Having several guys that have played a lot of varsity baseball together and have been through a lot of different situations together will hopefully help the team navigate different adversities we will face throughout the year," Lavy said.
The Thunderbirds may have some solid offensive players on the team, but pitching is their biggest strength.
Guiding North Callaway's pitching staff is Keaton Bell, who is coming off an exceptional freshman season. Last year he went 4-0 with a 0.62 ERA and pitched 22 2/3 innings, allowing just two earned runs on 14 hits (only one extra-base hit, a double) and a walk while striking out 24.
It wasn't just Bell, though. The Thunderbirds did it as a team on the mound in 2021-22.
During that season, North Callaway's pitching staff went 10-12 with a 4.70 ERA in 147 1/3 innings pitched. Additionally, the Thunderbirds allowed 165 runs (99 earned) on 168 hits and 71 walks while striking out 148.
"We have good pitching depth, with a handful of guys who can be very effective on the mound," Lavy said. "We also have a lot of varsity experience returning, which I would consider a strength as well."
The Thunderbirds hope to use that experience to improve on last season's sixth-place finish out of 11 teams in the competitive Eastern Missouri Conference.
Bowling Green won the conference last season, going a perfect 10-0. And behind the Bobcats were another four teams with above .500 records, including two district champions -- Class 3 District 5 Elsberry and Class 2 District 5 Louisiana.
"The top of the conference is extremely competitive, and we hope to be a part of that mix," Lavy said.
After practicing the past few weeks, North Callaway will participate in the Callaway County Baseball Jamboree Wednesday at South Callaway High School. Then, staying in Mokane, the Thunderbirds open the regular season with a doubleheader, taking on South Callaway and Kirksville.