Neosho Wildcats off to 5-5 start heading into conference play

Apr. 3—NEOSHO, Mo. — Neosho earned an 18-17 victory on Tuesday to bring its record to 5-5 in the early part of the season.

The Wildcats will carry that .500 record into Central Ozark Conference play. Their first opponent in conference comes Thursday evening at Webb City.

Head coach Bo Helsel said he beefed up the early-season schedule a bit to get his guys more prepared for the tough opponents in the COC.

"I have definitely toughened up the schedule this year because I want to compete in conference," Helsel said. "The COC teams are just really good. And, if we want to compete, we have to play really good teams and get ready for that."

Some of those opponents he mentioned were season opener Bentonville West High School (Bentonville, Arkansas), Lakes Community High School (Lake Villa, Illinois) and John Hersey High School (Arlington Heights, Illinois).

The Wildcats lost each of those games but battled in a close contest with John Hersey that saw them down 7-5 late in the game before surrendering three late runs and losing 10-5.

Neosho also lost to Lebanon (10-0) and McDonald County (1-0). Three of Neosho's wins came in the Roy B. Shaver Classic Tournament — the Wildcats' home tourney. The other two wins were against Marshfield on Tuesday and St. Mary's Colgan (Pittsburg, Kansas) last week.

Tuesday's win over the Bluejays was as crazy as it sounds with an 18-17 final. The Wildcats pulled off a comeback that isn't seen often in baseball. Down 13-4 heading into the bottom of the third, the team managed to work the score even during the last inning and scored the winning run on a passed ball in the final inning.

Neosho has a few different players to keep an eye on throughout the year, and Helsel talked about those guys in particular.

"So, Quenton Hughes has been our stud on the mound," Helsel said. "Kanten Smith and Cade Spiva are both crushing the ball right now. They've been in the heart of our lineup, which is a hard place to hit because you see a lot of offspeed and guys pitch around you a little bit more."

Hughes took that tough 1-0 loss against the Mustangs of McDonald County early this year, and that lone run was an unearned run. He also got the win over St. Mary's Colgan last week.

Smith and Spiva look to continue driving the ball as leaders of the Wildcats' offense.

Helsel had high praise for his starting centerfielder, Finnegan Versluis, last week when talking about his key players.

"Finn Versluis, in my opinion, is probably the best centerfielder in the conference. He covers a lot of ground. He makes it look easy. He has a good arm," Helsel said. "Our outfielder — after the last two years has been our weakness — is probably our defensive strength this year. We're going to run a lot of balls down, we're going to make good plays."

That outfield speed will translate to a lot of stolen bases for Neosho this year. Helsel says there are four or five guys who can swipe a bag at any given moment when on base.

"That will be something we haven't had the last few years," he added. "I think we will steal more bases this year than the last two years combined."

The Wildcats' next chance to swipe some bases is at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Webb City. The Cardinals come into play at 9-2.