By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
CARTHAGE, Mo. —
When Mike Godfrey took the Carthage coaching job four years ago, he quickly became aware of a young group of baseball players who had already made a name for themselves.
“This group has been kind of on the radar for a few years,” he said. “They’ve done really well from as young as 10 or 12 years old ... and as freshmen they really did well and stayed together, which is big these days. We knew coming in that this was a pretty good group.”
That group of kids now comprises Carthage’s varsity baseball squad, arguably one of the top teams in Southwest Missouri, if not the state.
The numbers definitely make a strong case — the Tigers are 17-0 overall and 5-0 in the Central Ozark Conference’s Large Division heading into a pair of nonconference games today.
And this has been their plan for a long time.
“We put the team together with just Carthage kids when I was eight or nine and this is what we’ve worked toward, building a good high school team,” Carthage’s senior standout pitcher and shortstop Drew Bridges said. “Our goal has always been to go after a state championship our senior year.”
With a team full of juniors, the Tigers finished the 2012 season by winning 10 of their final 14 games after a 6-6 start.
Godfrey said that strong finish was key.
“As they got better, we got better and their confidence kept growing,” he said. “They were chomping at the bit to get this year started.”
That confidence has spilled into this season.
The Tigers have three wins in their final at-bat and, according to senior Jordan Musser, eight players have come through either game-winning, game-tying or go-ahead hits late in games.
On Thursday, the Tigers trailed Branson 5-3 in with two out and nobody on in the seventh before rallying for five runs, including a two-run single from Musser and a two-run double from Miles Goade.
“We’re down to our final two outs with nobody on and the kids are still thinking something good is going to happen,” Godfrey said. “They really feel like every time they step on the field something good is going to happen.
“These guys expect to win and they compete their butts off. It’s a fun environment to be in.”
Bridges, a Missouri State signee and first-team all-stater, and Musser lead Carthage’s pitching staff.
And while the Tigers’ batting order lacks any real weak spots, Godfrey pointed out Gabe Franklin and junior Johnny Mills for stepping up at the plate.
Franklin, the leadoff man, boasts an on-base percentage over .500, many times setting the table for Bridges.
The scary news for Carthage’s remaining opponents is that Godfrey, despite seeing his team average more than eight runs per game, believes the Tigers can be better.
“Offensively, we still haven’t done what I expected us to do. We’ve had three or four guys doing well at a time but we really haven’t had the whole lineup produce at the same time,” he said. “We feel like our best days are ahead of us.”
If that’s the case, the Tigers could have visions of perfection dancing in their heads.
“Everybody on our team hates to lose. We don’t want to lose,” Musser said. “We want to win every game. We want to win out.”