Ask baseball folks about the sport’s history in Joplin, and they’re likely to mention Mickey Mantle and the city’s old minor league clubs. Or maybe they’ll point out the dozen Final Fours of its high school teams.
In the early 2000s, all eyes were on the Joplin High School Eagles baseball teams, and what an era it was.
In fact, their success is why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame proudly inducted 2000-2003 Era of Joplin High School Baseball with the Class of 2023.
The Kirk Harryman-coached Eagles reached the Final Four three times in Class 4. The 2000 club placed fourth at the state tournament. The 2001 team won it all by beating Francis Howell North 2-0 as Josh Tupper fired a non-hitter, with the Eagles finishing 22-10. The 2003 team finished as the state runner-up.
Nathan Hughes, a senior on the 2000 team, could have been speaking for all of Joplin’s teams of that era when he said, “We weren’t just teammates. We were friends. We knew what each other was thinking without a word being spoken. This team was full of leaders, and that is still evident to this day. These are good men.”
As Jeff Taylor put it, “Many guys played other sports, but we all played American Legion baseball in the summer and worked out in the winter indoors. This group of guys loved baseball.”
The seeds to the success were planted in the summer of 1999. The high school team had a premature exit from the district tournament, and many of those guys went on to carry the local American Legion club to the semifinals of the state tournament.
Upperclassmen filled the 2000 roster, and that club played a beefed-up early schedule that included a trip to Tulsa, Okla. In the district championship, Joplin beat Glendale in extra innings in Joplin. Hughes struck out 20, and Taylor avoided a double play by hustling to first base – with freshman Luke Lawver scoring the winning run from second base.
Wins against Lebanon and Francis Howell North pushed the Eagles into the Final Four.
And then in 2001?
That team watched the movie “Gladiator” on road trips, and “Death before Dishonor” became a team motto.
Said Tupper, “During the year, for some reason we missed our team picture, and I told Harryman we didn’t need one, we would get one at Columbia. That was just the way this team thought. Then losing the Ozark Conference for the first time in 11 years, at home, on a home run, just sent us on a war path.”
The 2001 team beat Kickapoo in the district championship game, and then strung together wins against Lebanon, Eureka and Francis Howell North to win it all. Jason Sullivan’s stout pitching effort in the semifinals and Tupper’s no-hitter are still talked about.
Lebanon pitcher Nick Admire (MSHOF Diamond 9 2019) dominated in the first round, until Joplin’s Kyle Cupp tomahawked a home run that set off a seven-run seventh inning, with Cupp purposely striking out his next time at the plate in the inning because a storm was moving in.
“A lot of credit is owed to coach Joe Ketchum and coach Mike Wilson who coached us during junior Legion and before,” Kyle Wilson said. “Coach Ketchum won a lot of baseball games at Joplin High School and his previous teams sort of set the expectation for what it means to play baseball at Joplin High School. Coach Harryman and Coach Eggleston were really great coaches and took it from there and pushed us to be our best.”
The 2002 team might have advanced further if not for facing pitcher Luke Harrell, a future big-leaguer, in the district championship game.
“We had a lot of guys who contributed on the ’00 and ’01 teams, so we had guys who had experienced success at the varsity level mixed with a very talented group of young guys who had won a lot of baseball games growing up,” Taylor said.
The 2003 season featured a 10-inning win against Glendale, a 2-1 win against Hillcrest in the sectional against future minor leaguer Jon Barratt and Lawver’s winning home run in the quarterfinals. In the championship game, Francis Howell edged Joplin 8-7.
Six of Joplin’s seven seniors played in college.
“Some of my greatest memories are from playing ball at Joplin High School during this timeframe,” Lawver said. “And still, to this day, I can call many of these guys best friends or close friends.”