ORAN, Mo. -- Coaches often cite the step from junior to senior as the most dramatic time in the physical development of male high school players.
The Oran Eagles took a talented junior-laden team to Columbia last spring and took third place at the Class 1 baseball championships.
Now with a talented, seasoned and matured senior class, the Eagles are back and have the look of a team on a mission.
"I think last year if there was a chance of us not winning, I'd say it was because of nervousness or not being focused," Oran coach Mitch Wood said. "I can honestly say this year that a team is going to have to step up and beat us. These kids are really focused and know what they want to do."
Top-ranked Oran (21-2) will attempt to reach the championship game today when it faces No. 6 Concordia (17-2) in a 5 p.m. semifinal at Taylor Stadium in Columbia.
The winner will face either No. 2 Sparta (19-1) or unranked New Franklin (10-7) in Thursday's 8 p.m. title game.
Oran has been ranked No. 1 in Class 1 the entire season and features eight seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup
Physical maturity has helped the Eagles put up Coors Field-like numbers. With 51 home runs, Oran has far surpassed its 2002 total of 15 and shattered the previous team record of 19. The 51 home runs rank third all-time according to Missouri State High School Activities Association records.
Senior Tyler Cookson broke the school's individual single-season record with 10 home runs, while senior Nathan Seyer tied the old mark with nine. They are just two of six slugging seniors. Joey Bickings and Tyler Nelson both are one shy of the old record with eight apiece, while Trey Graviett and Ryne Wood, have seven and five, respectively.
The six powerful bats are also strong on contact, combining with fellow seniors Patrick Friga and Brandon Dirnberger for a .413 average. Wood leads the way at .481, while juniors Matt Seyer and Garrett Roslen hit .426 and .348, respectively. The Eagles are batting .393 as a team.
The pitching staff is just as impressive with a 1.68 E.R.A. Graviett (7-1), today's starter, leads with a 1.53 ERA. Wood (6-0) and Nelson (5-1) both have ERAs under 2.0, giving Oran a formidable trio.
The Eagles lost only one player off last year's team which lost 8-4 to Marion C. Early in the semifinals.
"We're better," Mitch Wood said. "The kids are really getting bigger and stronger, and they're better ballplayers."
Add that to a brazened mental approach shaped by life's tough lessons.
Last year's lesson was a bitter one that led to a conclusion that a young mind can best articulate.
"The experience helped, but as far as learning anything, I learned that third place sucks," Ryne Wood said.
Wood's summation may reflect the one ingredient the Eagles lacked a year ago. The Eagles, equipped with bronze medals and a senior group, possess a sense of determination and urgency.
"I really wish we could have done it last year, but last year, going up there and seeing how things were and not having things handed to us, it makes us more focused and more hungry to win it this year," Cookson said. "I think we would enjoy it more this year because we've worked hard."
The Eagles plowed an intimidating path to state last season with a series of 10-run rule victories before things went awry.
"It did seem easy getting there last year," Graviett said. "And I guess it kind of caught us off guard that somebody up there was ... good, really good."
The Eagles haven't had such an easy time this year. They broke a late tie to edge Bell City 3-1 in the district championship game, then needed eight innings to nip North Pemiscot 3-2 in the sectional round.
The Eagles most recently dispatched of Ellington 12-3 in the quarterfinals to extend their winning streak to 10 games.
"I think these last few close games have gotten us prepared," Graviett said.
"I definitely think that helps, no doubt about that," Mitch Wood said. "I think they're more focused than they were last year. Last year after we won the quarterfinal it was kind of a circus. This time the guys celebrated for about five minutes and they knew what they wanted to do next."
This group of Eagles has been playing together since tee-ball and has been one of the town's treasured assets as they've moved along. Oran has never won a state championship in any sport, but this crop of Eagles has carried the hopes for the long-sought title.
"We'll just try to do everyone proud," Seyer said. "We've been expected to do a lot, and we just haven't come through."
"It definitely would be a big first, and these guys know that," Wood said. "In the 15 years I've been here, I've been coaching them for eight of those, and that's something they've always talked about. They want to be the first to do it. I think they were really disappointed last year that they didn't do it."
With classes already out, the final four will be the seniors' final school activity.
"It'd be a storybook ending," Ryne Wood said, "if we can pull it off."
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