Rhett Hayward and Sutton Hanks didn’t see much varsity playing time for Ozark last season, but are two of the Tigers’ most compelling pre-season stories this time around.
Hayward hoped to be Ozark’s feel-good comeback story last season. Amazingly, he was cleared to play only six months following surgery for a torn ACL. But he didn’t quite have enough time to get back in the swing of things for the Tigers.
Hayward ultimately struggled, after hitting a double in his first at-bat.
“Everything was perfect about that at-bat,” he said. “But then I had a few bad games and didn’t play in Districts, which was understandable. It definitely wasn’t the comeback I wanted.”
“We tried to bring him back, but couldn’t keep him fully healthy,” coach Justin Sundlie said. “It was really late in the season and we couldn’t experiment much then because every game matters. We backed off.”
Looking back, Hayward thinks it was probably asking too much too soon for him to have his timing down at the plate.
“I probably wasn’t 100 percent,” he said. “But I just wanted to be back with my guys. That senior class last year meant a lot to me. To play a few games with them meant the world to me.”
Hayward suffered a torn ACL in Week Seven of Ozark’s 2020 football season. For him to even attempt a comeback during baseball season was a reflection of an exceptional rehab process.
“I had some awesome people to help me be motivated along the way,” Hayward said. “Our athletic trainer, Chad Link, was a huge part of my rehab process. He helped me get back in six months.”
Hayward is just as motivated to make the most of his senior season. He’ll likely be either at second base or third base.
“I’m glad I worked hard in the off-season,” Hayward said. “After having my sophomore season taken away from me (due to COVID) and most of last year was taken away, I’m ready for the only (full) year God has given me in an Ozark uniform.”
“He will be a great addition,” Sundlie said.
Sundlie also has high hopes for Hanks, who has shined in pre-season practices
“There's no telling, he could end up being our best player,” Sundlie said. “From what he's shown me right now, he's very capable of that.”
Hanks was mostly used as a pinch-runner during his junior season last year. This season, he figures to partner with Devyn Wright and Greydon Miller to give Ozark a fleet outfield.
They hope to utilize their speed in the gaps and on the base paths.
“We’re going to be an athletic and fast team, especially in our outfield,” Hanks said. “I think we can take a lot of bags and get to a lot of balls in the outfield. We’re fast all-around.
“We will have to be aggressive, like we want to be,” he added. “Coach Sundlie has taught us to be aggressive on the base paths and if you get thrown out, it doesn’t matter.”
Hanks is the younger brother of former Ozark standout Parker Hanks, who is now pitching at Northwestern.
Sutton is right-handed, while Parker is a southpaw. Sutton tried throwing and hitting left-handed early on, but quickly realized he was better off as a righty.
“It was awful,” he said of his attempts at being a lefty. “Watching my Dad teach me how to swing, I swung right-handed. Parker got the left-handed gene in our family.”
Sutton adds tutelage from Parker has him feeling prepared to make the best of his senior season, whether he’s in left field or on the mound.
“Parker has helped me in both aspects,” Sutton said. “I look up to him. He has helped me improve with my pitching and when to throw certain pitches. He was also a good outfielder. In the outfield, he has helped me as far as tracking the ball.”