Former Lion visits Southwest Missouri as head coach of Illinois baseball team

Mar. 29—A 2015 third-team All-American while on the Missouri Southern baseball team, Chris Hoffman has been back to Joplin twice now as a head coach.

Hoffman has been at the helm of the baseball program at Lakes Community High School in Illinois for five years now, and the past two seasons he's brought his group down to play high schools in the Joplin area.

He was a utility player at MSSU, having played in the outfield as well as pitching some.

During Hoffman's All-American season, he batted .426 to lead the team. He also led the way in hits (83), runs (56), doubles (16) and triples (3). Other categories he led in were total bases (129), on-base percentage (.489) and stolen bases (18).

As a junior, he finished second in home runs with eight and was second with a .662 slugging percentage.

He finished with a .375 batting average in 2016.

"My experience in general at Missouri Southern was awesome," Hoffman said. "I just appreciate coach (Bryce) Darnell and coach (Nick) Tuck giving me an opportunity to play down here. And the success we had. We won conference and were able to make a regional tournament."

Warmer weather

For the Lake Community Eagles, it's a spring break trip. And after getting 4 inches of snow Friday before they left to come down south for the week, it's a nice change to see a little sunshine and some warmer temperatures during the early parts of the baseball season.

Hoffman has been able to get his players a game on the same field he played on eight years ago as a Lion. This year, Lakes Community faced Webb City on Warren Turner Field at MSSU. That game was on Thursday and Hoffman talked about getting to come back the last two years.

"Last year, it was a bit different. A surreal feeling," Hoffman said. "Coming back and coaching was definitely a different feeling. It's a cool feeling to bring kids back to where I played at."

The 30-year-old coach foresees the experience continuing despite the eight-to-nine-hour drive.

"This year, we brought the JV (junior varsity) team down as well so they got to experience the spring break and the awesome facilities down here in Southwest Missouri. I think we're going to continue coming down," Hoffman said.

Webb City head coach Andrew Doennig is fond of that idea.

"I think it's kind of fun for the kids. You play people that you never get to play before from out of state," Doennig said. "There's a lot of unknowns. How good are they? What are their arms going to be like? It's exciting for the kids.

"It's good for everybody. It's good for them. It's good for us. It's good for everybody in the area. As long as they keep wanting to come down, we're going to try and make it work."

Local connections

Hoffman played two seasons at MSSU after two years at a junior college nearby where he played high school ball in Lake Villa, Illinois, at the same school he's now coaching at. His final season in college was in 2016 and then he finished up his schooling in 2017.

The connections in this area extend beyond the college campus in Joplin as he also did his student teaching at Webb City before graduating. Another connection is former teammate Tee Helsel, an assistant baseball coach at Neosho High School. Helsel's brother, Bo, is the head coach of the Wildcats.

Neosho is another team that Lakes Community matches up with during the trip nine hours from home.

This year, Hoffman and the team made a stop on Monday outside of St. Louis at Parkway Central High School in Chesterfield, Missouri. Then, they came down to Branson on Tuesday before shooting across to play Neosho and Webb City.

The Eagles got rained out after two innings of baseball against Parkway Central and then defeated Branson and Neosho. Webb City topped Lakes Community 8-7 on Thursday. The Eagles leave Missouri with a 2-1-1 finish and are 5-1-1 overall.

The program from Lake Villa isn't the only one that takes advantage of warmer weather over spring break. John Hersey High School from Arlington Heights, Illinois, also makes the trip down. Lakes Community and John Hersey are about 45 minutes apart and are near Lake Michigan and Chicago.

The two schools were playing each other two years ago, and the conversation regarding spring break trips arose as that is a popular thing for baseball teams from up north. Hoffman pitched the idea of coming south for a week, and it sounded great to John Hersey head coach Wally Brownley.

"We get the hotels, we get the bus and we schedule all the games on our own," Brownley said. "I think it's almost like a college trip for these guys. ... It's a pretty cool trip for us."

The Huskies took a different pattern from Lakes Community. They came straight to Joplin and played the Eagles on Monday. Tuesday was a game against Webb City. On Wednesday, they spent the day in Branson for some fun and baseball. They ended the trip at Neosho on Thursday.

John Hersey split its four games and is now 4-3 overall.

"We love it. ... It's great baseball. Great teams. They're talented and even more, they respect the game so much," Brownley said of the Joplin area schools.

'Perfect week for us'

Neosho's Bo Helsel added his thoughts on the opportunity to play out-of-state competition.

"It's a perfect week for us because we have conference starting next week and these are both really good Illinois teams," Bo Helsel said. "We want to see the best competition we can. ... It's just fun to see some new guys."

Helsel added that games like these help to prepare some of his varsity players with minimal experience coming into the season. He believes strengthening the nonconference schedule with these opponents helps prepare the team for the Central Ozark Conference.

Brownley, a seventh-year head coach, added that everyone they come in contact with during this trip is "friendly and accommodating" yet still "competitive between the lines."

Joplin head coach Kyle Wolf provided John Hersey's team access to their facilities and field while in town as one sign of that friendly and accommodating statement.

"The facilities are first class. You guys have amazing stuff down here — all the teams we play," Brownley said. "Everybody's been so good. Especially coach Wolf over at Joplin."

Brownley talked about the turf fields being something he enjoys playing on, saying that all the fields they are on back home are still traditional dirt and grass.

Both teams take advantage of the extra time together to develop some team bonding while obviously keeping a focus on baseball as well.

Mini golf too

"It's been cool to come down here and guarantee some games for the kids," Hoffman said. "But, also, to get to spend it with all the kids in the program just hanging out. Like, this morning we were doing some mini golf. We got to do some things other than baseball.

"We want it to be a good experience for the kids in addition to baseball. This is a good opportunity to do that. We're nine hours away from home. We get five days together. ... It's been awesome."

"We did go to dinner Sunday night and watched some NCAA basketball games together," Brownley said. "Got to walk around Branson for a little bit, and I think some of these guys did some T-shirt shopping.

"When we go home we know a lot about our team and the things we want to accomplish. Last year, we had a good season — one of the best seasons in school history. I think part of it was the chemistry we built on our trip down here."

Two players from the teams spoke about being able to make the trip down as well.

"I think it's a great bonding experience before we start conference next week," Lakes Community senior Spencer Kennamann said. "Just hanging out in the hotel I think brings the whole team togehter."

Kennamann also mentioned the special opportunity to play on the turf fields.

"It's been awesome just being with everyone bonding, hanging out in the hotel. I feel like it's brought us closer together," John Hersey senior Brandon Pflomm said. "The fields out here are awesome. ... It's nice to see new arms, new teams. And see how we compare against other states."