Hoots hyped to open first season at home

Posted: May. 29, 2018 12:19 pm

The Hannibal Hoots baseball club was originally scheduled to open its inaugural season on the road.

Understandably, the front office viewed that as less than ideal.

General manager Matt Stembridge pulled the right strings to allow the team to play Opening Day at Clemens Field. Hannibal orchestrated a swap with Danville and will host the Dans at 6:35 p.m. on Wednesday.

The game represents the first Prospect League contest in Hannibal since the Cavemen folded following the 2016 season. 

"It was really important to us to open up at home for our first year," Stembridge said of the swap, which sends the Hoots to Danville for a game later in the season. "We really wanted to capture the momentum." 

Twenty-four Hoots players arrived in Hannibal on Monday for a team meeting and their first practice of the season. More were expected to join the club this week or in early June.

Clayton Hicks will be the field manager of the Hoots this summer. Hicks, an assistant coach at Danville Area Community College, formerly pitched for Stembridge at Quincy University.

"The guys we have are hard workers, respectful of the community and will play the game the right way," Hicks said. "At the end of the day, that's all you can ask. We'll compete and see what happens."

The current Hannibal roster features 14 pitchers, including a pair of locally-developed right-handers in Scot Roberts (Missouri Western) and Dalton Overstreet (Quincy).

Dylan Marble (Danville), Jonny Steiner (Lindenwood-Belleville) and Quinton Kujawa (Lewis and Clark CC) are among those who figure to log significant innings this summer.

Zach Gibbs, a freshman at Missouri State, is expected to bolster the pitching staff upon his arrival the second week of June.

Pitch count regulations enforced by the league will influence how the Hoots manage their pitchers this season. The team is slated to play 60 games in the span of 67 days.

"We're probably looking at a six-man rotation," Hicks said. "We're going to have guys who get spot starts here and there. Maybe you have to bullpen an entire game. I can't wait to work with our pitchers. We have a lot of freshmen and sophomores, so seeing them grow over the summer will be fun."

Brady West (Indiana Wesleyan), Sam Nozicka (Eastern Illinois) and Austin Francis (McKendree) will suit up behind the plate for the Hoots, splitting time at arguably the game's most demanding position.

Hicks mentioned the timeshare at catcher brings much-needed flexibility.

"They will all get their time," Hicks said of his backstops. "It's exciting to have that depth. If a guy needs a day off, it's no big deal."

Michael Nielsen, a sophomore slugger at QU, begins the summer on the 15-day disabled list with a hamstring injury. The infielder batted .315 with 11 home runs and 43 RBIs for the Hawks this spring. 

Outfielder Tye Thixton (Danville) and infielder Ethan Owens (Drury) are among potential contributors projected to plug roles near the top of the batting order.

Thixton hit .355 with 42 runs and 40 RBIs in 50 games in his sophomore campaign at Danville, while Owens hit .342 with 31 runs and 25 RBIs in 49 games played as a sophomore at Drury.

Josh Lane and Wyatt Whitman come to Hannibal as a package deal from Taylor University. Lane hit .349 with 29 RBIs and 16 doubles as an infielder this spring. Whitman, an outfielder, hit .323 with seven homers, 40 RBIs and 15 doubles.

Lane and Whitman also combined to steal 49 bases for the Trojans while each starting all 60 games.

"The lineup game one probably will be vastly different than game 60," Hicks said. "The first week or two, we're going to have a lot of different lineups to get a feel for who fits where."

The Hoots hope to have an advantage offensively with eight position players who bat left-handed.

Four of the six outfielders on the Opening Day roster are lefties.

"We went really heavy on left-handed hitting," Stembridge said of recruiting. "That's a big deal to me. The majority of really good pitching will be right-handed, so we want to put a lineup full of lefties in there to make it tough on them."

The Hoots franchise, solely owned by local businessman Rick DeStefane, doesn't want to put a number on how many games it sets out to win during its first summer of operations. 

Hicks noted his focus is simply on making sure his players compete on a daily basis and let success come as a result. 

The Cavemen failed to qualify for the postseason in each of their eight seasons.

"I think the wins will take care of itself with the talent we have," Hicks said of the Hoots this year. "We want to make it to the playoffs and give ourselves a chance."

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