By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
It's late July 2019. The St. Joseph Mustangs have just defeated Ozark 16-10 for their sixth MINK League title as a franchise.
West Platte graduate and William Jewell pitcher Mack Stephenson told head coach Johnny Coy later that same night, "I want the ball next opening day."
One canceled season later, Coy honored that request.
"A week before the coronavirus canceled our season, I was told it was still my start," Stephenson said. "Then, two months before this season started, he texted me out of the blue and said, 'You're still my dude, so be ready to rock and roll.'"
Stephenson was indeed ready, throwing eight strikeouts over six innings and helping the Mustangs to a 5-4 win over the Des Moines Peak Prospects on June 2.
That was just the beginning. In five total starts this summer, Stephenson is 4-0 with a 2.31 ERA, throwing a team-best 51 strikeouts to just 16 walks. His last two starts have both been complete games, where he's thrown a combined 25 Ks and just three walks.
Stephenson's best outing of the season thus far came on July 4, where he fanned 14 batters and walked none in a 4-1 win over Sedalia. Playing in front of over 3,800 fans at home, the effort was enough to get Stephenson MINK League Pitcher of the Week honors.
"It definitely gives me an extra boost," Stephenson said of the home crowd at Phil Welch Stadium. "I'm a very nervous person by nature, and it's even worse on start days. I'm fidgety and ready to go, but I'm really excited in a good way when all of these people are out here. It definitely motivates you to go out there and leave a little extra in the tank."
A four-time All-State and All-Conference honoree at West Platte, Stephenson gained a fifth year of eligibility in 2021 at William Jewell, making five starts and striking out 34 batters over 28.1 innings.
Stephenson ended his college career with 198 total strikeouts, including a career-best 65 in 2019. Even in a COVID-shortened year in 2020, he led the Cardinals with a team-best 20 strikeouts.
When COVID canceled the MINK League season in 2020, that made Stephenson all the more excited to come back to St. Joseph this summer.
"I always knew I love baseball and I want to stick around as much as possible," he said. "It kind of reinstated the idea that I need to stick around the game somehow, some way. It made me so, so excited and happy to come back. I really enjoyed it out there the other night being a part of that and being a part of that atmosphere."
Now in his third and final season with the Mustangs, Stephenson is making the most of the opportunity. He's hopeful his efforts this summer, and in seasons past, will lead to another chapter in his baseball career.
"I hope someone is risky enough to sign me and give me a chance to play somewhere," Stephenson said, "because I'm not quite ready to hang it up just yet. But, if worse comes to worst, and this is the last go-round I have, I wanted it to be in a place where I thoroughly enjoy playing baseball."
You can follow Tommy on Twitter @TommyKFEQ and St. Joseph Post @StJosephPost.