The OFC Boys of Summer
POPLAR BLUFF – Monday was beautiful. Sunshine, mild breeze, autumn in the air, and area high school boys of summer playing their best at the Ozark Foothills Conference (OFC) Tournament on the TRC campus.
While statistics measured the performance of athletes mathematically, peers, coaches and families proved the measure of the player. A SEMO TIMES reporter asked a number of fans who they’d watch for, or watch out for, during the series. SEMO TIMES caught up with these fan picks after their games Monday and one by telephone Tuesday.
So by popular choice, here are conversations with a few fine young men, their coaches and families.
Greenville’s No. 3, pitcher and shortstop Trey McDaniel is thought by many to be a sure pick for the majors directly from high school. McDaniel hits “between 400 and 500 but I should be doing better,” he told SEMO TIMES.
All of these talented athletes, McDaniel included, are grounded firmly in God, their coaches, and their families.
McDaniel’s mother, Kim, might be her son’s most ardent cheerleader. From family whiffle ball games and Little Tykes ball bats, she’s watched Trey’s transition from little slugger into big-league hopeful.
“I’d like to see him with a minor league program that is known for developing young men,” she told SEMO TIMES Tuesday. “I remember when he was 12 or 13 we started noticing his pitching velocity improving.”
Kim was charged with choosing trainers and traveling teams so her son could develop and challenge himself to be the best player he could be. “Trey has played ball in Texas, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, all over Missouri.” She continued, “He’s coachable. Versatile. Tough mentally and physically.”
This season saw Trey’s fastball speed increase from 79 mph in December to 84 mph in July before his sophomore year even started.
Trey is ranked by prepbaseballreport.com. Not just listed, but ranked No. 1 in his class, and No. 15 on the site’s national list.
Like nearly every player interviewed, Trey hunts and fishes in his down time. He tried bow hunting for the first time last year, he said. And like every player interviewed here, he has a favorite baseball team.
“The Cardinals,” he admitted. “And Matt Carpenter is my favorite player. When he played AA ball at Springfield, he autographed a ball and gave it to me.”
Trey said he wanted to lead his team “by example,” and the one sure way to accomplish that is to set a good example and “stay out of trouble.”
His little brother, eight-year-old Talan, and his sister Trinity, 11, look up to the sophomore.
“Oh, Talan looks up to me 100 percent,” Trey said knowingly. “We play together: Basketball and video games.”
And like Talan looks up to Trey, McDaniel has a teammate whom he looks up to.
“Trynt Tompkins is great to have behind the plate. And Blakeney Kearbey,” Trey nudged his friend. “But mostly because he’s 6 foot 5.”
The conversation turned somber quickly. McDaniel is currently sidelined to being the team’s designated hitter while his St Louis doctor evaluates the MRI taken last Friday and his “minimally displaced superior labral tear.” [Updated from family: Trey does not currently need surgery.]
“I tell him to keep his head up,” Kearbey said of his friend. “He needs to take care of that arm.”
Asked what he expected, Trey had a positive, concise answer. “I expect to win.”
Trey’s father, Rick McDaniel, said all his eldest son wants in life “is to play” sports.
“Hockey, tennis, basketball, baseball, you name it,” Rick said. “We encourage our kids and provide them with every opportunity to be the best they can be.”
Neelyville Coach Benji Stahl teaches his players the same – be the best they can be.
One of Stahl’s players is being scouted by John David French for the Atlanta Braves organization. “Cody Birdsong,” the coach said. “He’s our shortstop. He can hit and he’s got an arm.”
That might be an understatement on Coach Stahl’s part. Birdsong is hitting more than .600 right now. “Cody leads our team,” Stahl said. “If Cody’s having a good day, well, we follow him pretty much.”
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to replace him,” Coach admitted. “I like to think I helped him some on the way. But he’s a much better player than I ever was.”
Birdsong maintains good grades, stays out of trouble and is an avid outdoorsman, he told SEMO TIMES. When he’s not playing ball, chances are he’s helping out on the family’s 450-acre farm, or mudding in his red 2008 GMC Sierra – the one with the loud exhaust pipes.
Birdsong hit another home run Monday in the first round of the tournament and finished out the game as relief pitcher.
It’s rare for his folks to miss an outing, he said. His mother, Remia, attends all his games. His father, Travis, has been known to leave work in Kansas City, drive to watch Cody play at Thayer, then return to work in Kansas City, Cody said.
And yes, Cody Birdsong’s favorite baseball club is the Cardinals. His favorite player? Well, maybe a foe.
“Bryce Harper for the Washington Nationals,” Birdsong confessed. “Nobody plays as hard as him.
“I like to play hard, too,” Cody added. “I like to play hard like Harper.”
So it looks like Birdsong will be studying at Illinois, and playing ball there, too, although he is yet to sign and nothing’s etched in stone. He said he’ll miss his buddies on the team, and had some parting words for them all.
“Just like Coach says, never get too up,” he said. “And never get too low to play the game.”
If those are wise words, then Twin Rivers No. 10, shortstop/pitcher Nathan Watson, underscores the phrase. Twin Rivers Head Coach Mark Blackwell said Watson “is the player all coaches wish for.”
Although benched for the season by a broken neck he sustained when he fell asleep at the wheel of his 1993 Ford truck, Watson “hasn’t missed a game” since he was released from the hospital, Coach Blackwell said.
And despite a halo-contraption that’s screwed into his head so his neck remains stabilized for healing, Watson attended every single practice as well, the coach added.
“His seatbelt saved his life,” coach said of the wreck. “He was just one mile away from school.”
The wreck resulted in Watson breaking his neck in five places. “I didn’t know where I was,” Watson recalled. “There were all these people huddled around me.
“They were telling me to be still and not to move,” the senior added. “I felt a tingling in my neck and I could move my arms and legs.”
An ambulance carried Watson from the wreckage on Missouri 51 to a Poplar Bluff hospital, where glass pieces were removed and Watson was prepared for a flight to a Cape Girardeau facility.
Nathan’s parent’s, Jamie and Mary Ann Watson, are in his corner of course, he said. So is his little sister, Taylor, who is 10 years old.
And although an injury like his might have stopped a few people in their tracks, Nathan is looking forward to the end of the month when perhaps the halo device might be removed.
“I want to get back to hunting,” he said. “Hunting, basketball and baseball – that’s all I do.
“I been playing ball ever since I could pick up a bat,” Watson continued. “And I love pitching. I love the pressure and the adrenaline rush.”
A member of Twin Rivers General Baptist Church, Nathan’s deep faith has served to guide him during this temporary setback, he said. His father agreed.
“Nathan was baptized when he was 10,” Jamie Watson said. “He has his faith.”
“Everything happens for a reason,” Nathan said. “I have good grades and I’m in the A+ program at school.
“So the first two years of college are paid for if I come here to TRC,” he added. “I’m going to try out for the team as a walk on.”
East Carter High School’s Trevor Lewis is described by Asst. Coach Daniel Baucom as “a leader who does things right.”
“His behavior is exemplary,” Baucom said. “Never an issue. It’s always ‘yes, sir and no, sir’ with him,” coach added. “He’s a natural born leader.”
Baucom noted that No. 36, his senior catcher/pitcher, is more than a gifted athlete. “He’s No. 2 in his class,” Baucom said. “I’m sure college is in his future.”
Trevor’s mother, Monica Lewis was a high-school athlete herself, Trevor said. Being a softball player might have enabled her to help out her son a bit more than usual.
“My mom actually coached a few of my teams,” Trevor Lewis said. “Her favorite sport is baseball.
“She and some of the ladies she worked with had kids,” he explained. “They all got together and coached us.”
Another avid outdoorsman, Trevor enjoys hunting and fishing with his father. Camping too, is a favorite activity, he said.
“It’s something I have always done with my dad,” Trevor said.
The family lives on a farm between Elsinore and Grandin, Trevor said. Trevor enjoys driving his 2013 Ford F-150 pickup on country roads.
“It doesn’t have loud pipes,” he laughed. “My dad said ‘no loud pipes.’”
The outdoors are fine for Trevor and his family. But baseball is a reason to live for the athlete.
“Growing up, baseball is something I always enjoyed,” Lewis said, spellbound. “I was fascinated by the game.
“I remember all my relatives would play catch and whiffle ball games when we gathered together,” he continued. “Really, it dominated my whole life – whiffle ball out in the yard.”
Trevor’s favorite big-league team is of course, the team with the birds on a bat. But keeping apprised of their standings does prove difficult for him, he said.
“There’s no cable out here,” he said. “But I consider myself a true fan.
“I try to watch games on my phone,” Trevor noted. “Or I’ll drive over to a friend’s and we’ll watch the game together.”
Lewis enjoys the catching style of Yadier Molina, and watching Matt Carpenter on the field, he said.
“But I really like Mike Trout who plays for the Angels,” Trevor admitted. “He plays the game right.
“He’s not so worried about his image, or the hype,” he commented. “It’s a game, and games are meant to be played.”
Which is why he loves playing ball with his teammates, Lewis said. “They all play the game,” he insisted. “We play the game as a team.
“It helps keep our attitudes right,” Trevor explained. “When we play together – when we play the game together, and we play hard, the stats take care of themselves.”
And this season the stats were pretty impressive for his team, which finished the regular season “16 and 2,” he said. Trevor went on to describe his passion.
“I love to catch,” Trevor admitted. “It stretches my mind and keeps me in the game.
And, I do like to hit,” he added. “I’m a fastball hitter. I always look for the fastball.”
And that’s worked out for Lewis pretty well, too. Trevor hit .475 this season.
He’s played on traveling teams like the SEMO Wildcats, won state titles and district championship games that resulted in his team being first-place champs. If he could attend one university of his dreams, and play ball there?
“Vanderbilt,” the senior said. “Vanderbilt was my dream school before it ever was a national championship school.”
So while these fan-picked ball players live for the game, they also appreciate their pasts and anticipate their futures; they like pickup trucks, loud exhaust pipes (whether they are allowed or not is a different story); they follow the St. Louis Cardinals; they love playing ball, and just enjoying the outdoors with family and friends, they love God, attend church, many work the soil with their hands; and all of them think …well, all of them think baseball and want to keep playing after high school.