Oran baseball team's tradition starts with roster depth

Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Oran junior Alex Heuring is batting .300 with two homers and 18 RBIs this season. (Fred Lynch)

ORAN, Mo. -- The Oran baseball team has featured a lot of great players on its roster over the years, and many of them have stood in the spotlight as the Eagles advanced to 11 Class 1 final fours.

But those great players haven't really been the difference in Oran's success, according to coach Mitch Wood.

"There's some of them that's great players," Wood said last week as his team prepared for today's Class 1 semifinal. "But we try to beat you with our five through nine players being better than your five through nine. You know in [Class 1] and probably all the way up to [Class 3] really, you've got anywhere from two to four pretty good players and then after that."

Wood stopped mid-sentence before adding, "You know."

As in, you know, the rest aren't as talented.

Oran seniors Adam Schaefer, left, Blake Carlyle and Dalton Elfrink hoist the championship plaque after beating Bernie 6-5 in the Class 1 District 2 title game earlier this month in Leopold, Mo. (Fred Lynch)

"That's what we do that really is different, I feel like," he said. "We really, when we start practicing in the beginning of the year, we say, 'Hey, we want to make these kids as good as they can possibly be.'"

The work really starts sooner than that, although not as early as some think, according to Wood.

"As far as our program itself, honestly, and a lot of people don't believe it, but we don't get started until they get into the junior high years and start coming over and playing with us a little bit," Wood said. "I think it's something that they learn to play, they play and then we have quite a bit of work to do once they do get here."

The players on this year's team learned to play in different places. Although they're hopelessly fuzzy on the details at this point, several players recalled crossing paths at a young age.

Sometimes they played against each other in games and other times they joined together to play for various all-star teams. Some, including Dalton Elfrink, Bear Hicks and Kody Moore, played in the 12-and-under Cal Ripken World Series in 2007.

Whether or not they realized it, Wood sometimes was watching.

"I go to see kind of what we have coming up, of course," he said. "I'm like anybody else. But I just enjoy the game of baseball. You can tell a lot about kids when they're 8 to 10, 12 years old and how they're going to act and how they're going to do some things."

Wood hasn't coached youth baseball since his son Ryne was playing, but he still learns plenty about his future players by watching them when he can.

"Probably the first thing I look at is how they carry themselves, what they look like, how they act, how they react," he said. "You know like I do, when they're that young a lot of things happen, a lot of mistakes happen, so I just like watching to see how kids react, how they do some things."

He can recall watching members of this year's team when they were younger. Some he knew would draw the spotlight, others he's watched and helped grow into it.

"My kids that are all playing for me right now, I remember when they were younger and playing and doing some of the things they did," Wood said. "It's amazing. It's like the Carlyle kid. He's leading us in a lot of categories and he couldn't even start for us as a freshman. He couldn't play a lot. He has come a long ways. He's tremendously improved, which is awesome. That's what I like more than probably anything."

While some of his teammates spend their summers playing baseball around the Midwest on traveling teams, senior Blake Carlyle is a continuously improving product of Oran's summer team.

"That's one of the things we really encourage is to get out and play," Wood said. "We have our own summer league team every summer, but I encourage them if there's somewhere else that they can play at a higher level to go play there and then come back and play with us."

The summer team, which is coached by an Oran assistant and plays against other local teams, helps the five through nine players Wood talks about become better than the five through nine players on other teams, and sometimes it's the place where they become top players, like in the case of Carlyle.

"I feel like I was super weak my freshman year, so my batting really stunk, but I think that all these years of working, working on batting, definitely I think I've improved in that area," Carlyle said. "And then, I don't know, I just try to contribute where I can."

Carlyle, Oran's cleanup hitter, leads the Eagles with a .443 batting average and is tied for the team lead with 27 RBIs.

"I feel like it's definitely pushed me over the edge of what I thought that I could do," Carlyle said about his summer work. "All this work, this dedication, helps."

Elfrink, a senior, has split time during the summer between other teams and the Oran summer team.

"We try to prepare them for the next year," Elfrink said about being a veteran on the roster. "We try to let them know there's got to be talking in the dugout, there's got to be talking in the infield, outfield. Summer is more like a preparation for getting ready for high school ball the next year."

Part of getting ready for the high school season for younger players is understanding what is expected once they put on an Oran baseball uniform.

"There's a lot of places that have what they describe as tradition, and that's something that I think that thrives here," Wood said. "Those kids, there's a lot of expectations on them when they get here.

"I don't think they fully understand it, but we instill it. Plus my older kids, kids who have graduated, kids that went on to play college, they come back and do a great job of letting the kids know the importance of what's going on. Very seldom there's ever a year I don't have a kid come back and throw some BP or come back and hit with us. Kody Campbell's here close, plays at SEMO. He's done a great job of coming back every year and hitting and doing things with us."

The gesture is something Carlyle and his teammates notice.

"I think it's awesome because I've played with some of the kids that come back and help out," he said. "Just to know the Oran baseball team isn't just for high school, you can come back and help. I think it's just awesome coming out here and seeing them."

Wood and his players have been quick to bring up the fact that no Oran team has won a state championship.

"It'd probably mean the world to me, if you want to know the truth," Elfrink said about what it would mean to bring home a first-place trophy. "Our team, we ain't just doing it for ourselves, we're also doing it for the coaches, school and for everybody in Oran. They supported us the whole way. It's not more taking, it's more giving back."

Senior Adam Schaefer played a big role in helping the Eagles earn another chance at a state title.

Schaefer, who has a sub .200 batting average this season, had an RBI single and a well-executed squeeze bunt from his No. 7 spot in the lineup in Oran's 4-1 quarterfinal win over Naylor.

"That rewards me more than a Kody Moore," Wood said about watching Schaefer spend a day in the spotlight usually reserved for players like Moore. "That's as nice a way as I can say it, I guess. I get more reward out of that because those kids are the ones who don't see a lot of success in different things, but they have worked their butts off, and like I said, they're as good as they can be. That's what you like to see."

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