High School : : General
Thursday, March 01, 2018

East readies, reacts, reloads

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Shawnee Mission East HS Baseball




2018 Great Plains Region Preview2018 Perfect Game High School Preview Index

Shawnee Mission (Kan.) East High School first-year head coach Will Gorden isn’t into playing word games, but he does know there are certain ones he won’t use when talking about the process taking place within the Lancers’ program this season.

“I’m not going to say refilling or refueling, and I’m definitely not going to say rebuilding – I don’t like that word,” Gorden told Perfect Game this week. He then expressed another thought before interjecting with a word he thought best described the process: “Reloading!”

Word-play aside, Gorden is inheriting a Shawnee Mission East team that finished 19-3 a year ago after a loss in a Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) regional tournament final under the direction of former coach Jerrod Ryherd.

That finish came a year after the Lancers won the KSHSAA Class 6A state championship with a 21-4 record, the school’s first state title in baseball since 1995. The 2016 Lancers were led by the left-hander Joey Wentz, who became a first-round compensation pick of the Atlanta Braves in the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft and is now a rising Braves’ farmhand.

Nine players from last year’s team were part of the school’s 2017 graduating class, including right-hander Zebulon Vermillion (now at Arkansas), right-hander Luke Anderson (Missouri) and outfielder Jake Randa (Northwest Florida State College).

The combined 40-7 records of the past two seasons are in the history books. Gorden is now tasked with the challenge of upholding the SM East program as not only one of the best in the state of Kansas but also in the sprawling Perfect Game High School Great Plains Region (Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota).

There is a boatload of individual star-power in the PG Great Plains this year, but no one dominant team/program. Jefferson City (Mo.) High School is the only team from the region in the PG HS Preseason Top 50 national rankings, and it comes in at No. 45.

SM East might be working in reload mode this spring, but it remains a proud program with a lot of recent success. And the Lancers fully expect to be a contender even while playing in a brutally competitive Kansas City, Kan.-area league.

The ball is just now starting to roll. Gorden and his staff held the first of three days of tryouts on Monday, and had 68 kids turn out, a total he described as “a decent number.” The program will field four teams this spring so the final number of players to make the cut will likely be somewhere in the fifties.

Gorden was hired at East last May, and while some members of the team got together for impromptu workouts during the summer and fall, the tryouts represent the first opportunity the new head coach will have to take a look at the players with his own eyes.

“I was pretty pleased how everything looked (Monday) all the way across the board,” he said. “We lack experience to say the least but that’s not to say we don’t have enough pieces to go out and compete on a daily basis.”

What Gorden will continue to see as the season progresses is a very young team with the likelihood of having only five seniors rostered. The team returns only two varsity starters from last year – senior catcher Jonah Watt and sophomore shortstop Robert Moore – and has no pitcher that threw more than 15 innings at the varsity level in 2017.

Perfect Game lists Watt and senior right-hander Dalton Mall as top-500 prospects in the national class of 2018; Watt (No. 8 in Kansas) has signed with Central Arkansas and Mall (No. 3) with Evansville. Watt has been up on the East varsity since his freshman year and will be counted on for his leadership abilities.

“Jonah is definitely going to have to give us that,” Gorden said. “Being the anchor of the program for the last four years, he really understands that winning tradition. He’s the one we’re going to have to lean on and build around, and he’s really taken some of the other seniors and showed them the ropes early.”

Junior right-hander/middle-infielder Daniel Hammond is ranked top-500/8 in the 2019 class, and junior left-hander/first baseman Carter Jones and junior third baseman/right-hander Justin Randa are also highly regarded. The super soph Moore – an alumnus of the 2016 PG 14u Select Baseball Festival and the son of Kansas City Royals GM Dayton Moore – is ranked Nos. 30/1 in the 2020 class.

 

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WILL GORDEN IS ORIGINALLY FROM OKLAHOMA BUT HE STUDIED
and played baseball at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo. After graduating, he served as an assistant coach at Rockhurst High School in K.C., Mo., for four years and then was the head coach at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park, Kan., for another four years.

Those endeavors on both the Missouri and Kansas sides of the Missouri River and the terra firma state lines prove nothing if not that Gorden knows the lay of the baseball land in and around the Greater Kansas City Metropolitan Area.

And on the Kansas side, it means that he is intimately familiar with the formidable Sunflower League, an assemblage of 12 large-enrollment schools that comprise the most competitive prep conference in the state.

“The Sunflower League has so many schools in it, and so many 6A schools in it, that you’re just going to see so much top-level talent,” Gorden said, “Every time that you step on the field there’s going to be somebody across from you that’s a Division-I player; it’s going to happen every time. I really think it’s a tough league, that’s for sure, and you’ve got to be prepared to win every game.”

There is one job listed on Gorden’s resume that will allow him to bring a very unique perspective into the SM East job. He spent most of the last two years working at a Major League Baseball development center in Wuxi, China, where he taught the game at its most basic level.

In China, Gorden was put in a position where he had to try to convey the nuances of the game to young players who didn’t speak the same language as he does, and he learned a lot about the art of patience in the process.

The situation forced him to find alternative routes of communication, which he feels has made him a stronger communicator with his current group of young American players. And there was more.

“The discipline that those (Chinese) players had is something I really hope to share with our players here,” Gorden said. “(Get across) the idea that (the East players) been given a lot already and what they do with it is going to be the key. A lot of people who play the game don’t have the same things that they’ve been given, so they need to be grateful and put in that effort every day, and then they can enjoy that part of it.”

For this group of Lancers, whether they’re dealing with a reboot, a refuel, a (heaven forbid) rebuild or – as Gorden prefers – a reload, putting forth the effort shouldn’t be a problem. There is the belief among the coaching staff that these players understand the importance of winning and how equally important it is they go about their business the right way.

“They’re a confident group, which I like, and a group that understands what they’re up against and they’re a group that understands what was lost (to graduation),” Gorden said. “I think they have a little bit of an edge and something to prove, and that’s that they can be a good team year-in and year-out.”

Ryherd guided the program at SM East for the eight previous seasons before leaving to head the program at Blue Valley Southwest High School in Overland Park, Kan. Gorden praised Ryherd for instilling and developing a winning attitude amongst the Lancers, while also helping them become more socially aware.

He said the team did a pair of community service projects over both the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and more than 35 of the players took part. Gorden is confident that if his players put out the same sort of effort on the field that they showed during their service projects, the season could end up being a special one.

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THE COACHING STAFF GORDEN HAS ASSEMLBED AT EAST COULD QUICKLY
become the envy of the Sunflower League, if it isn’t already; it certainly has one of the most high-profile members in the league.

The man he will put in charge of hitting and outfield instruction is Brian McRae, the son of former Royals All-Star and manager Hal McRae. Brian was a first-round pick of the Royals (17th overall) in the 1985 MLB June Amateur Draft right out of a Florida high school and played parts of 10 seasons in the big leagues with the Royals, Cubs, Mets, Rockies and Blue Jays; he patrolled centerfield for the Royals from 1990-94.

“Brian has joined our staff, and anytime you’re lucky enough to have a guy of his caliber and with his pedigree out here, you know these young men are going to learn so much from him,” Gorden said. The two men had worked together previously as coaches at the Kansas City Sluggers youth program.

“It’s not a (team) that probably needs a lot of guidance and help,” McRae told Maria Torres from kcstar.com when asked about joining the Lancers, from a story published last Nov. 2. “They’ve built a pretty good tradition over there with going to state, having draft picks and kids going on to Division-I schools. It’s a good program to be in line with.”

Mark Sappington, the Angels’ fifth-round pick in 2012 out of Rockhurst U. and a veteran of five minor league seasons, and Josh Cavender, a 2001 Marlins’ draftee out of Kansas State, are also on the coaching staff. Gorden feels each one of his assistants can have an immediate and lasting impact on his players.

“When a former professional player is saying something to them, they obviously know those guys have played at the highest level and have had that experience,” he said. “The guys that I have around here are teachers of the game, and that’s the biggest thing for me. They really enjoy working with young men, and that’s really the key. …

“Overall, I think (the players) see them as a coach, a mentor, and while it’s still early on in our process, I really expect them to have a great relationship.”

There is a very unofficial connection between the baseball program at Shawnee Mission East and the Royals that goes beyond Brian McRae’s presence on the coaching staff and the standout shortstop, Robert Moore, being the son of Royals’ GM Dayton Moore.

Justin Randa is the son of former Royals third baseman Joe Randa, a veteran of 12 big-league seasons; another of Joe Randa’s sons, Jake, was one of the impact players that graduated last year. All three of hall-of-famer George Brett’s sons – Jackson, Dylan and Ryan – attended East and were part of the Lancers’ baseball program; Jackson and Dillon also played football at East.

East Lancers’ baseball teams have not completed a season with a losing record since 2013 and once the reload is completed, Gorden fully expects this year’s team to respond more than adequately to any of the adversity expected to come its way.

The head coach believes that playing high school baseball can be an extraordinary experience, one where a group of friends – the operative word here – can come together, play for the name on the front of their uniforms and work in unison toward achieving a common goal: winning a state championship. And, most importantly, have a lot of fun while they’re doing it, practically whistling while they work.

“The first thing I said to them (on Monday) was to relax and to go out and play baseball like they did their entire life as a kid growing up,” Gorden said. “On Thursday, after the teams are set, one of the things we’re going to talk about is what is expected of them daily, and that will lead up to the big, long-term expectations.

“That’s how we’ll view it this year. Did we meet our daily goal, and do those daily goals add up to a state championship? That’s our day-to-day outlook on things.” In other words, no rebuild necessary …


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