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story.lead_photo.caption Harding Academy senior T.J. Hester awaits a pitch during a recent game. Last year, Hester earned all-conference honors and should see time on the mound this season. ( Staci Vandagriff)

Last season, for the first time since 2012, the Harding Academy Wildcats did not win conference and district titles or advance to the state tournament. Harding Academy finished the season 19-8 with a 3A-2 Conference record of 6-2.

“Though the 2020 Wildcats begin without a good senior class from 2019, the Wildcats have high expectations for the season,” head coach Shane Fullerton said. “We may have the most talented group of underclassmen in the program’s history.”

Returning this year are utility man Eli Henley, an all-conference performer in 2019, and two-time all-conference outfielder and state championship starter T.J. Hester. Also returning are Harding University commit and pitcher Davis Welch and first baseman Conner Cason.

Fullerton said the Wildcats have a strong sophomore class that is led by Gavin Alveti, who is ranked as the No. 1 Arkansas catcher in the 2022 class, the coach said. “He played pivotal roles on last year’s team,” Fullerton said.

The Wildcats will also depend on the sophomores to step up to play integral roles this year, the coach said. Outfielders Chris Anderson, Mathis Foster, Ryan McGaha and Benny Scott Tallie; and infielders Eli Wallis and Cooper Welch are all vying to make an impact this season.

Fullerton said the freshman class is led by highly touted players Levin Lang, Kade Smith and Jadyn Wilhite, all of whom should have immediate impact.

“Freshmen Daniel Henley, Landon Koch, Levi Mercer, Cade Pryor, Colton Smith and Peyton Webb could vie for time and round out the roster,” Fullerton said.

Davis Welch, Kade Smith, Levi Lang and Gavin Alvetti top a list of pitchers slated to lead the Wildcats on the mound, the coach said.

“T.J. Hester, Cooper Welch, Eli Henley and Jadyn Wilhite should also see ample mound time,” Fullerton said.

He said Koch, Pryor, Colton Smith, Tallie and Wallis could also add varsity innings.

Fullerton said his team might have the toughest nonconference schedule in the 3A Conference with Cabot; Valley View; Greenwood; Carthage, Texas; Benton, Louisiana; and Kennett, Missouri, heading the list of competitors.

“With a cold, wet preseason, it’s been hard on all the coaches in the state to get the work in that we’ve needed,” Fullerton said. “We are really fortunate to have a group of kids who want to do what’s necessary to get prepared.

“We had a good season that ended in a disappointing way last year, but we have high expectations for this season, and our guys have worked hard to reach their goals.”

Fullerton said he is really excited about what his team could become.

“Our upperclassmen have seen the opportunity to step up and lead and have done that with both their actions and attitudes,” Fullerton said. “Our coaching staff loves working with this group, and we are all excited to actually get started.”

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