Brandon Williams (25) and Grant Wood (7) of the Jays celebrate a run crossing the plate during a recent game in Emerson, Ga.
April 7, 2016
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. --- Call this venture The Great Escape.
The Jefferson City Jays made a baseball trip to Emerson, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, in March and squeezed in four games in three days. This trip wasn't all about baseball, however.
"We always make an effort to do something with the team outside of baseball on a trip like this," Jays coach Brian Ash said. "We took them to a place call The Escape Room and they're set up in different rooms, like a study or a library, and there are all these different clues you have to solve to actually get out of the room."
In other words, it's basically a combination of a scavenger hunt and Clue.
"It forces them," Ash continued, "to work together and communicate with one another. Hopefully, that creates team bonding and lets them get to know each other a little better.
"Obviously, you want to play good baseball on a trip like this and play some quality teams. But the most important thing is to try and create a better team chemistry ... it's a chance for the seniors to get to know the sophomores on a little different level, other than just baseball. That's the main purpose of it."
One of the three teams got stumped and failed to make the great escape. You can just hear their teammates ... 'You don't have a clue!'
"It was fun, they had a great time," Ash said. "Even the team that didn't succeed, they learned a lot about each other. You can kind of see who your leaders are and who wants to stay in the background."
Two more things about team bonding on a long road trip ...
"The No. 1 thing we did, as far as team bonding goes, was the bus trip," Ash said. "You're in a tight space and you're forced to talk to the people around you. Just take the baseball stuff out of it and get to know your teammates, and you're going to have more in common than you think."
But there's nothing quite like winning to bring a team together, and the Jays did --- they went 4-0, winning those games by a total of six runs against teams Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Ohio.
"The level of competition we saw, compared to what we saw in Florida (on trips in 2013-14), was a lot better.," Ash said. "We saw some really good arms, so to go down there and play four good teams and win them all, it was --- I wouldn't call it a shock --- but it was a pleasant surprise that we played this well early in the year."
Most of the teams the Jays played had already played 20-plus games. For the Jays, these were games 3-6.
"At the end of the day, they're high school teams just like we see here in Missouri," Ash said. "But they've just played a lot more games than we have and seen a lot more live pitching, that's a big advantage."
The 4-0 trip has sparked a 9-1 start for the Jays, who will host the Capital City Invitational on Friday and Saturday.
"We knew our strengths coming in were going to be defense and pitching, and that's been the case so far," Ash said. "Pitching is usually ahead of hitting at this time of year, but we're a very capable offensive team. We've got a little bit of everything ... some guys with some punch in the lineup, we've got some guys with some speed, and some guys who can handle the bat and move runners over.
"So our offense is going to come around, and that will take some of the pressure off our pitchers."
The pitching has been splendid, as evidenced by the team's eye-popping ERA of 1.94. Leading the way is junior lefthander Jacob Weirich, who's 2-0 with a 1.31 ERA
"Coming off what he did last year (6-4, ERA of less than 2), the expectations were pretty high," Ash said. "He relishes that role, he wants the ball, it doesn't matter what the situation is. Outside of baseball, he's kind of a nonchalant kid but when he's on the mound, the lights turn and it's like, 'I'm better than all of you.'
"He's got that demeanor on the mound."
He's earned the right to have that demeanor. While Weirich went 6-4 last year, he could have easily been 8-2. And he did the unthinkable --- as a sophomore, no less --- the rarest of the rare in high school sports --- throw a perfect game in baseball.
Against arch-rival Helias, no less.
Certainly, there have been plenty of no-hitters in high school baseball, and a lot of perfect games in softball. But not high school baseball, not in a seven-inning game.
"I've never seen of it or ever even heard of it," Ash said.
If you've heard of it around here, please let us know.
Senior J.T. Bohlken, known best for his leg in football, has a good arm, too, and "he's throwing it just as well as J-Dub right now," Ash said. Bohlken's 2-0 with a 1.75 ERA, while senior Blaine Meyer is 2-0 with a 2.30 ERA and sophomore Brandon Williams is 2-0 with a 2.38 ERA.
Those solid arms are backed up by a solid defense, which is anchored by junior shortstop Grant Wood.
"You talk about a game-changer defensively, his hands are as sure as anybody's in the state," Ash said. "And offensively, he's really coming on ... he's been on a tear."
Wood leads the team in average (.414), hits (12), home runs (two) and RBI (11). Weirich is also a force at the plate, batting .385, while sophomore center fielder Tyler Bise sets the lineup in the leadoff spot with his .348 average.
"He's a dynamic kid, he's fast and he's strong," Ash said of Bise.
The Jays open the tournament at noon Friday against perennial power Blue Springs. Other teams in Jefferson City's pool are Lutheran-St. Charles and Blair Oaks, while the Helias Crusaders will compete in the other pool with Hickman, the event's other host school, defending Class 3 state champion Fatima, and Eureka.
Ash and the Jays will have their hands full, to be sure, but they're also aware of what's coming after this weekend --- key games against district opponents, Hickman on Monday and Battle on Tuesday, which could go a long way in determining the district seeding.
"This tournament is great and we want to win it, but I'm not going to sacrifice everything for a tournament," said Ash, whose team won the title in 2014 to break the school's two-decade drought in this event. "Obviously, you want to go out and play well and win it, but right now, we're playing to jockey ourselves for the best position in our district tournament.
"Those games, in my opinion, are more important."
Equally important, perhaps, was the trip to Georgia, where the Jays won by the scores of 3-1, 6-5, 4-2 and 4-3. Two of those were in extra innings. And of their other five wins, three of those have been by one or two runs.
In other words, these guys know how to win close games. Gray hairs for the coach, perhaps, but a good sign for the future.
"When we get in those dogfights late in the season," Ash said, "we've been there and we've done it. It's not going to be a panic situation for us, because these kids have been in those spots.
"The kids we have have been winners all their lives. They've always known how to compete, now their bodies have grown and they're more mature. The mental aspect has always been there, now the physical part is there.
"They expect to win every time they go out."
Be it at Vivion Field or in Georgia.
Red-hot road trip sparks Jays
March 16, 2016
OWENSVILLE, Mo. --- Coaches coach ... it's what they do.
It doesn't really matter who they coach or where they coach, they just can't help themselves.
Take Steve Tappmeyer, who's smoothly made the backwards career move of coaching high school girls after leading a men's college basketball program for more than two decades.
"Coaching is something you love," Tappmeyer said. "But there are parts of it, when you're doing it a long time ... there's kind of a burnout that occurs.
"But then there's the draw back and reaching back to it ... that's why I was excited to try and do this."
The burnout came after a 21-year stint at Northwest Missouri State, which Tappmeyer built into a consistent player on the Division II national stage. He won a school-record 408 games with the Bearcats --- 22 or more in eight of his final 10 seasons --- and led them to the national tournament nine times in his final 12 years, including two trips to the Elite Eight.
He "retired" in 2009.
The reaching back came in Owensville and coaching the Dutchgirls, and his first season has been historic --- he directed the Dutchgirls (25-6) to the Final Four for the first time in 22 years and just the second time in school history, and helped them to a school-record third-place finish.
"To come back here, not knowing if you were going to coach again, and be able have such excitement going around in your hometown and your own high school, it's really neat," said Tappmeyer, 58, a graduate of Owensville High School.
This is not only the first time Tappmeyer's coached a girls team, it's the first time he's coached a high school team, period. Not surprisingly, this has been quite a transition.
"There's a ton of differences." he said. "One of the biggest things I had to come to grips with was their skill level, what type of offense we could run, what kind of sets we could run and be able to handle it. After coaching a good level of college players, we had to simplify a lot of things.
"And I think how you motivate is another (difference). I don't know if it's boys to girls so much as it is college to high school. In college, you're in a position where you can challenge them a lot more and bit a lot more intense. You have to motivate them in a different way.
"It's a different animal. The patience and the true coaching of fundamentals, the repetition you need ... the lower level you coach, the better coach you need to be, in some respects."
Owensville obviously has a good one, a very good one. This season didn't start out all that well, however --- a 21-point loss to Jefferson City.
"We told the girls this was a measuring stick and they'd done us a favor, they've exposed a lot of things we're not very good at," Tappmeyer said. "Our goal was to continue to stay on the path of getting better at all those things, and trying to be playing our best ball at the end of the year.
"We definitely didn't start the season as a team you thought would be here. There's been a lot of growing along the way."
When Tappmeyer spoke, players listened.
"I give our girls a lot of credit, they were open to being coached," he said. "They had to be looking around and thinking, 'Who is this 58 year-old guy who's never coached high school and never coached girls? Is this guy crazy or what's the deal?'
"But they let me coach them, and I think we've developed a much closer relationship as the season's gone on. And you know winning helps ... when you've won 11 games in a row, it's a lot easier to buy into the message that's being sold."
The latest win was a come-from-behind 56-52 overtime win over fourth-ranked Carl Junction in Saturday's quarterfinals. That should set the tone for this weekend, playing high-caliber teams --- Owensville will face the No. 1 team in the state, Benton, in the semifinals.
This entire Final Four was like a Sesame Street or the kids magazine, Highlights --- one of these things is not like the others, can you find it? Along with top-ranked St. Joseph Benton --- the eventual state champion --- the other semifinal pitted No. 2 Incarnate Word against No. 3 MICDS.
No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 ... and little, ol' unranked Owensville.
"I don't put a lot of stock in rankings," Tappmeyer said, "but I think these are pretty accurate for the total body of work. These teams are just awfully, awfully good."
But there's something special about an underdog in March --- and the madness they can create.
"Sometimes, if you get in the right game, you can use that to your favor," Tappmeyer said. "When you're ranked No. 1 in the state, you're supposed to be blowing somebody out who's not ranked.
"If we can do the things we need to do to stay in the ball game, get a flow and some confidence going and it gets later in the game, I think there's a little bit of a pucker effect that can happen to the ranked team. All of a sudden, the pressure is definitely on them."
Certainly, it's a team sport, but Owensville was often be a one-girl show --- 6-foot senior Hailey Diestlekamp (who will play in college at Drury) averaged team-highs of 24 points and eight rebounds, and she also dished out more than three assists per game.
"She's just top of the line in every area," Tappmeyer said. "She's a tremendous player, she's been very open to being coached, she's been a lot of fun to coach. There are very few nights we don't have the best player on the court, at least on our team.
"But really, it's been a team effort. There have been a lot of different people step up on different nights."
What a ride it's been for this town and this team --- and what memories they've made in the process.
"The fun part," Tappmeyer said, "is to see the community come together and all the excitement at the high school and middle school and elementary ... the whole school system is excited about it. It's been real satisfying for me, this is home for me. It's been fun for me, but I've coached a long time and had a lot of really good moments.
"But it's a first for these girls, to see the enthusiasm and the looks on their face ... I'm so happy they get to experience it. They've made history, they've put a banner on the wall and they get to go to the Final Four.
"The most special thing --- people who play team sports and do things like this --- is the team bond that's there forever with you and your teammates."
It's why coaches coach.