It's been a slow process but throughout five years of coaching the Waynesville High baseball team, Scott Turner has steadily improved the Tigers, turning them into Ozark Conference contenders.

WAYNESVILLE – It's been a slow process but throughout five years of coaching the Waynesville High baseball team, Scott Turner has steadily improved the Tigers, turning them into Ozark Conference contenders.

In 2011, Turner's third season at the helm of the program, the Tigers finished with nine wins, and in 2012 the squad turned in a 15-11 overall record.

Of those 11losses, Turner said six were by a mere run.

"We're on the cusp of breaking into that next category of actually becoming a continuously winning program," Turner said. "If you look at the wins and runs scored versus runs allowed, those numbers, they're all heading in the right direction."

But wins won't come easy in 2013. Waynesville graduated seven senior starters and nine players overall from a season ago, leaving the team bare at catcher and limited throughout the lineup.

"Last year we had nine seniors and a lot of those guys played varsity the year before," Turner said.

Of those graduates James Holler played each game at catcher before earning all-state honors. Romeo Flores, the Tigers' former pitcher/third baseman and all-stater, pieced together a 20-game hitting streak while at Waynesville. As hitters the two led the Tigers with 22 RBIs each and 67 combined hits.

The Tigers will miss Holler's and York's ability to hit for extra bases.

"We lost a lot of power offensively," Turner said. "But with these five guys I have returning, and a total of 10 seniors, we have guys that have baseball experience that will really come into play."

The Tigers will now have to rely on speed to earn bunts and extra-base hits to move runs across the plate, but each hitter is capable of producing clutch RBIs since there are "not as many holes in our lineup."

"This team has more weapons," Turner added. "We don't have to just rely on home runs."

The previous seniors' multi-season experience translated into sound pitching and defense in addition to better understanding of situational baseball and "moving runners across the plate." But the current crop of starters also have multiple games of varsity experience.

Despite losing seven varsity starters, five letterman return in 2013, including pitcher/infielder Ethan Howser, a "supreme baseball talent" who tossed multiple no-hitters a year ago.

"He's got speed, arm strength, can hit for average, and can field his position," Turner said. "I expect him to be the No. 1 or 2 pitcher."

Left-handed Zach York, another Waynesville ace, led the team in wins (4), starts (9) and innings pitched (52.1) in 2012 and will also return this spring. Both Howser and York also displayed discipline at the plate earning a combined OBP higher than .400.

"It's nice to have those two guys coming back," Turner said.

Other senior returners include Eriq Kristek and Dylan Newcomb, who produced well for Waynesville in 2012. The two combined for 17 RBIs and respectable battine averages last season. However, Kristek will transition from first base to catcher and Newcomb will resume his role as a middle-of-the-order hitter.

The fifth letterman, junior Trent Simpson, started each game at centerfield and was the leadoff hitter in 2012 and will do so again this season.

"Those five guys bring back a lot of talent," Turner said. "It's definitely a good core to build around."

Overall, Waynesville has a capable crop of returning players, but that is only the start to competing for a conference title.

Turner said his skillful Tigers should fare well in a traditionally powerful baseball conference. The coach mentioned Kickapoo, Hillcrest, Glendale, and Joplin as dominant forces his team will take on this season after opening against a tough schedule.

"The first week is going to be a very tough week for us," Turner said.

Waynesville will open against Rock Bridge on Friday at home at 5 p.m. before hosting Jefferson City and Union the following week. Then Waynesville will play in a double-header in Columbia against Hickman and Vianney on March 23.

The Tigers will also play on a new field – one of the finest playing surfaces in the state – which will certainly help improve morale during the season. But it will be up to the Tigers to determine their own fate.