CLAREMORE — If there is one thing that Claremore Zebras head baseball coach Brent Payne respects about his team, it’s their to commitment to excellence.
Payne, in his second year as the Zebras skipper, said he’s blessed with a group of young men that work hard and take winning serious.
“We’ve got a group of seniors that have played a lot of ball together,” Payne said. “And their determined to get back to the state tournament.”
In 2009, the Zebras advanced to the Class 5A state tournament thanks to a stable pitching staff and the solid leadership of senior shortstop Travis Stafford.
It was in the state quarterfinals that the Zebras fell to Carl Albert and Edmond Deer Creek and finished the season with an 18-16 record.
Stafford, one of five full-time returning starters and 13 lettermen who have varsity experience, has been a mainstay in the middle of the Zebras’ infield for the past three years.
Payne said he has high expectations for the Allen County Community College signee, who spent his freshman and sophomore seasons at second base before shifting over to shortstop as a junior.
“Travis is a good hitter in the 2 or 3 hole and a solid defensive player with a lot of athletic ability,” Payne said. “If there is one area he needs to improve on its being more outgoing and vocal.”
A quiet leader at the plate, Stafford lets his actions speak louder than his words.
“I’m not sure Travis realizes what his capabilities are as a baseball player,” Payne said. “He’s got some tools that will allow him to go far if that’s what he wants. The sky is the limit for this young man.”
In Monday’s 10-0 season opening win over East Central, Claremore relied on senior pitchers Byron Schroeder and Travis Teague to pave the way.
“Byron gave us four good innings on the hill and Travis closed it down for two solid innings. I thought both guys pitched good and threw a lot of strikes,” Payne said. “Also it was encouraging to see the kids compete at the plate with two strikes. If there is an area we need to continue to work on its our timely hitting with runners in scoring position.”
This Saturday, the Zebras will have plenty of opportunities to work on their fundamentals, hosting the Baseball Festival at American Legion Park.
* Claremore (2-0) will face Class 4A state tournament participant Mannford at 1:30 p.m., followed by a 6:30 p.m. against Class 5A powerhouse Harrison (Ark.). Other games in the Festival are: Mannford vs. Miami (Okla.), 11 a.m., and Miami (Okla.) vs. Harrison (Ark.) at 4 p.m.
“So far, it’s good to see our kids playing error-free defense,” Payne said. “We need to get more consistency, though, at 1 through 9 in the batting order. Overall, I can’t complain about these guys and their work ethic.”
Blake Mallory (5-9, 175) is a senior and a part-time starter behind the plate for the Zebras.
“Blake swings the bat really, really well, but needs to work on his defense,” Payne said. “He’s a competitor and very strong and brings a state championship mentality from wrestling to our program.”
Adding depth at catcher are junior Clay Bower (5-8, 170) and sophomore Brenton Washausen (5-9, 170).
Trevor Hall (6-0, 180) is a senior and a part-time starter at first base. Hall will share time with senior Michael Skimbo (6-1, 175), who also will be expected to pitch and play outfield.
“Trevor gives us plenty of pop in the lineup and does a good job of hitting the ball in the gaps,” Payne said.
Steve Harmon (5-7, 150) is a senior and two-year returning starter at second base.
“Steve will be our lead-off hitter and brings a lot of speed to the lineup,” Payne said. “We will bunt quite a bit with him. Defensively, he needs to get better around the bag.”
Stafford (5-9, 160) is a senior and four-year starter in the middle for the Zebras.
Staggs (6-1, 170) is a full-time returning starter that can play a number of positions, including providing depth at catcher if needed.
“Ryan is a jack of all trades, as well as a gifted off-speed pitcher,” Payne said.
Also expected to see time at third base are seniors Dylan Jordan (6-2, 170) and Oakley Burklow (6-1, 220).
Matt Davis (5-11, 150) is a senior and part-time returning starter.
“Matt is a very good defensive-minded player,” Payne said. “He’s getting better with his offense, but we’re expecting good things from him this season.”
Also, Payne plans to use senior Justin Romaine (5-7, 130) and senior Nick Lamb (5-10, 150) in left field.
Skimbo and junior V.J. Ray (5-10, 150) will battle for starting duties in center. Both players, according to Payne, provide good speed and strong arms to the lineup.
“Right now, V.J. is getting to play more with Michael still in basketball. But, we expect both players to compete for playing time,” Payne said.
Clay Debban (5-10, 160) is also a senior and part-time returning starter.
“Clay will provide us plenty of pop in the middle of the lineup as well as depth on the mound,” Payne said.
Also expected to see time in right field is senior Sean Coppock (6-0, 180), who has really shown improvement.