COLUMBIA — Fr. Tolton Catholic Regional High School doesn't have a baseball field of its own. Instead, the Trailblazers call American Legion Post 202 home.
"I mean, it's a little bit of an annoyance," sophomore catcher Tate Cooper said. "But we've got a place to play, and that's the most important thing."
Driving 5.2 miles to play a home game is one of the difficulties Tolton faces as a young program. In Tolton's first season of varsity baseball, the team was made up of 13 players, most of whom had little to no baseball experience. The Trailblazers finished the 2013 season with a 4-11 record.
"We had kids that hadn't played since T-ball," Tolton coach Mike Johnson said. "We had probably four or five kids that were really baseball kids that came in varsity-ready."
Johnson can already see growth in the program as it prepares for its second season. He and his players are proud of the foundation they set in the team's first year, and they hope this year will be a step toward building a tradition of excellence.
"It would've been nice to play at a place where it's already all set for you," Cooper said. "But it's very nice to be able to write our own history here."
Tolton's program grew from 13 to 25 players by the start of the second season. Johnson sees the growth as a testament to the way his players conduct themselves and the quality character his program strives to uphold.
Because of the number of new players, Johnson had to add a new coach, former MU pitcher Rick Zagone. The Trailblazers are able to field a junior varsity squad along with the varsity group, too.
"I didn't think there was any way we would have that many boys," Johnson said.
The team has to do more split drills in practice, but practices will remain the same as they did during the team's first varsity season. The increase in competition within practices could improve the on-field product.
The team and coaches expect it.
"Last year was kind of let's just get it started," Cooper said. "We want to win. Obviously, you're out here to win. That's your job. This year we want to build upon that and definitely see that 'W' number go up."
Johnson said his players being a year older will go a long way in increasing performance on the field. Bat speed gets a little bit quicker and pitches get a little bit faster as players grow.
"The difference between a 14-, 15-year-old and a 16-, 17-year-old is huge," Johnson said. "I think that gets overlooked in baseball sometimes."
Johnson said he thinks he can put nine players on the field who can compete with anyone, which is exactly what he plans on doing this season.
Tolton has a tough schedule, and Johnson is quick to praise the quality of prep baseball played in mid-Missouri. But Tolton isn't scared, and the Trailblazers certainly won't go down without a fight, their coach said.
"I will hold them accountable," Johnson said with a firmness in his voice. "We're not giving up before we start."
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