With Nixa players placed in rows according to their class for their team photo in the pre-season this year, it occurred to Colin Kelley how super the Eagles’ sophomores were.
“When I first realized how good our class is was on our picture day,” Kelley said. ”You could see how promising the future is and how good the class is. Wyatt (Vincent) was to my left and Caeden (Cloud) to my right. They're top-level guys. As a whole, our class is really good.”
Not many teams, much less a Final Four outfit, have been strengthened by sophomores to the degree Nixa has. Vincent is in his second go-around as the Eagles’ starting center-fielder and has assumed the lead-off role. Cloud has proven himself at shortstop and as the team’s No. 3 hitter. Kelley and Jackson Gamble are two of the leaders of the pitching staff, whether used as starters or relievers.
All four could easily figure largely in Nixa’s fortunes at the Final Four this weekend, beginning with tonight’s semifinal showdown against defending state champion Liberty North.
Outside a couple hiccups, Kelley has experienced plenty of success throughout the season. He recorded a no-hitter at Rockhurst in his second varsity start. In the post-season, he has gained two wins with lockdown extended relief outings.
His sophomore season has been far beyond Kelley's prior expectations.
“I was a little skeptical on how many innings I would get,” Kelley said. “Coming from the freshman team, I didn't know what my role was going to be, if I was going to be a reliever or a starter or how many innings I would throw. I didn't expect this many innings. I've been really satisfied and feel like I've done my job for the team.”
Gamble, too, has been on the mound more than he imagined going in.
“I talked to coach (Logan) Hughes (in the offseason) and he told me I would be one of our starters and I believed him,” Gamble said. “I was thinking maybe I’d get 20-30 innings. I was happy I got the opportunity, but didn't know if I would be able to stick. I needed to trust myself.
“My first start (a loss against Springfield Catholic), I felt good about,” he added. “I went out with the mindset of trusting my defense. We didn't end up winning, but it was fun.”
Gamble went on to gain two wins against Ozark. He also points to losses to Willard and Republic as being part of his progress.
“Being in big games, I've learned a lot about high-pressure moments and breathing on the mound,” Gamble said. “I’ve experienced a couple losses. Learning form them is probably more impactful than learning from the wins, as far as what I can improve and gain from times when I'm not at my best.”
Kelley credits seniors the likes of Rylan Evans and Brayden Tangora for helping him feel settled in on the varsity.
“It's a lot different pitching from the freshman team to the varsity team and a pretty good one, too,” Kelley said. “It was like getting called up. I was very nervous. Evans and Tangora, I've learned from them.”
Unlike most sophomores, Vincent already had a year’s experience to rely upon at the start of this year. If all goes as planned, he’ll be a rarity as a four-year starter for the Eagles.
Vincent’s first varsity at-bat as a freshman saw him hit into a double-play. But he never doubted he could play with 17- 18-year-olds as a 14-year-old.
“I had the confidence going into this season I belonged,” he said. “Starting off not the best was kind of hard. But I felt like I belonged the whole season. Even when things weren’t going well. I was still contributing.”
Vincent has taken pride in seeing his classmates join him by steppint up so early in their careers.
“Our sophomore pitchers are all showing up,’ Vincent said. “It's amazing to see how they have progressed. It's phenomenal how much work they have put in and how far they have come. I'm really proud of them.
“It's not always about you,” he added. “Seeing teammates succeed is awesome to watch.”
Nixa’s Class of 2025 figures to contribute even more in the future. Other sophomores to keep an eye on are Parker Mann, Drew Creed, Elijah Adams and Carter Fangrow.
Even without Vincent and Cloud, Nixa's freshmen were undefeated a year ago.
“They expect to win," Hughes said. "They worked really hard in the off-season and carried that momentum into the season.”
Early success has the sophomores motivated for the future.
“This has been an amazing season, an awesome experience,” Kelley said. “I want to keep getting better. I'm excited. The next two years are going to be awesome. It's going to be fun to see.”
Kelley and Gamble will be sure to keep each other from being complacent. No matter the sport, they enjoy being friendly rivals. Their tee time at Rivercut Golf Course this week was as hotly contested as any of their outings on the mound.
“He's probably the better golfer, he's definitely got me with the driver. But we’re still pretty competitive,” Gamble said. “It's kind of funny. We always want to one-up each other. At the same time, we want the best for each other. We make each other better.”
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