Chris Mooney returns to the Tigers after earning first-team all-conference honors last year.

Houston Tigers coach Brent Hall has noticed a recent trend of his top players failing to match the production of their junior seasons as seniors. He is challenging Kyle Poynter to change that.

Poynter returns following an all-state year as the key figure for the 2010 Tigers. He was the team’s top hitter and pitcher as the leader in nearly every statistical category as a junior.

Now comes the encore senior season that has been difficult for many of Poynter’s predecessors.

“You kind of expect the same things if not better,” Hall said of Poynter. “Sometimes kids have a good junior season and drop off. That’s been indicative of some of our players. We’ve had some good junior campaigns and not as good senior seasons.”

Poynter may return as the top player, but he’ll have plenty of support.

Houston returns many key figures from last year’s team that went 14-11 and lost in the district final. Chris Mooney earned first team all-district honors as the team’s No. 2 hitter and pitcher. Also returning to the starting lineup are Eli Smith and Kaleb Poynter, who were each recognized as honorable mention selections.

Houston should feature one of the top pitching staffs in the area with the 1-2 punch of Kyle Poynter and Mooney and the addition of left-hander Lucas Cooperman, a transfer from Cabool.

Poynter capped a dominating season on the mound with a one-hitter in the district semifinals against Rogersville. He finished with a 6-1 record and 1.04 ERA. Poynter struck out 58 batters and walked 15 in 47 innings.

Hall said Poynter’s velocity has increased into the low 80s and could be even higher on warm days. Poynter’s biggest asset is his control and keeping the ball low in the strike zone.

“He’s got a good downward plane,” Hall said. “He keeps the ball low, and that’s hard to hit when you’ve got a guy coming with that much downward angle.”

Mooney can be just as effective as Poynter by mixing four and five pitches. He had a 2.33 ERA and struck out 50 batters in a team-high 51 innings. Despite his numbers, Mooney finished with a 3-5 record.

“He drew all the tough assignments on our schedule,” Hall said. “He’s just as good, if not better at times than Kyle. He just does it a little different.”

Cooperman will be the team’s No. 3 pitcher. Ty Foster, Kaleb Poynter and Kodey Campbell complete the staff.

Houston may lean on its pitchers to carry an offense that struggled through most of last season. The Tigers hit just .271 as a team.

The top of the lineup will likely be strong. Cooperman will bat leadoff, followed by Mooney and Kyle Poynter. Mooney batted .320 last year in the same No. 2 hole and ranked second with 19 runs. Poynter, who moves up from clean-up to third, led Houston in batting average (.471), on-base percentage (.524), hits (32), home runs (3) and RBIs (25).

Eli Smith, who hit .250 with six doubles and 14 runs last season, will bat behind Poynter. After him, Hall said the Nos. 5-9 spots in the lineup are undecided.

The bottom half of the lineup will be a mix of Kaleb Poynter, who started last year at second base, outfielders Ty Foster, Brandon Belt and Kenny Barton and catchers Nathan McCarthy and Cody Campbell.

Jacob Case, who is ineligible until the team’s third game, and freshman Weston Walker may also figure into the mix. J.R. Knetzer, who started last year at first base, is sidelined 3-4 weeks with a knee injury.

“I don’t want to say hitting is an issue, but it’s probably our weakest link going into our first game,” Hall said. “I foresee us hitting the ball better because we’re a year older.”

Houston opens the 2010 season Tuesday when it travels to Mountain Grove for the annual SCA Tournament. The Tigers host Rolla the following Tuesday in their home opener. They will have the opportunity to play on Hammons Field on May 1 when they face Willow Springs.

“This team loves baseball and wants to be out here. It’s going to be a great bunch of kids to work with,” Hall said. “I anticipate having a great season. I expect to be in the mix of the conference race and have an opportunity to win the district.”

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