Clarksville, Ark.-A disappointing end to the 2006 season has the University of the Ozarks baseball team eager to begin their quest for another shot at the program's first post-season bid in nine years.
“We were so close last season,” head coach Jimmy Clark said. “We were one win away from making the playoffs, and that has certainly been a motivating factor in the off-season. Our goal is to get to the playoffs, and I think we have that opportunity. But this league has really improved since I arrived. From top to bottom, it is one of the premier conferences in NCAA III.” Needing just one win to earn the program’s first playoff trip since 1997, the Eagles were swept by the American Southwest Conference East division champion Mississippi College Choctaws in the final regular season series of the year. Adding to the frustration was the fact that the Eagles held leads against the champs in two of the three games. “You have to give Mississippi College credit,” Clark said. “They played about as well in that series as any team I’ve coached against here.” Three starters and nine lettermen return from a team that finished in a fifth-place tie in the divisional race (9-12 record) and went 19-21 overall. While Clark believes his 2007 club has more talent than the 2006 team, it will be difficult to replace each of the starters, all of whom were seniors. It was a senior class that combined to hit .329 last season and provide 54 percent of the team’s runs en route to setting numerous records at Ozarks. “We lost a bunch of good players and we will miss those guys, but we are real pleased with the guys we’ve got in,” Clark said. “We’ve got mature guys from the junior college ranks that will help immediately. I think we will be more athletic than we were last year, and talent-wise, we are better than last year.” Transfers Brad Broussard, Bruce Cameron and John Glenn provide experience and athleticism to the team. The Eagles will also get All-Conference performer Todd Koch back from last season’s injury. The 6-3, 215-pound right-handed Koch led the team with a .418 average as a freshman. The sophomore will also see significant time on the mound. Returning starter Robby Finnell made his mark last season, and earned All-Conference honors. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Finnell was named to the ESPN The Magazine Academic All-America team after hitting .377 with 24 RBI and four home runs. Finnell, a junior outfielder/pitcher, proved to be one of the top hitters on the team, ranking among the top five in batting, RBI, slugging percentage (.554), hits (49) and total bases (72). The right-handed slugger was also effective on the mound, finishing with a 2-1 record and a 3.80 ERA. “Robby is a line drive and gap hitter and will hit a lot of doubles,” Clark said. “Todd is as good as hitter there is in the league, but it may take him some time to catch up. These guys won’t shy away from good pitching. We just need to get some guys on base in front of them.” The 2007 team may not have as much power as the 2006 team, but they will be able to manufacture runs and stay among the top offensive teams in the league, according to Clark. “We’ve got a few guys that can hit for power, but we will be more of a team that will bunt and hit and run to manufacture runs,” Clark said. “This is what I like. We’ve got some guys that will be tough outs, but they won’t be power guys. I think up and down the lineup we’ll be fine.” Starting shortstop Logan Kizer returns. Kizer, a smooth fielding sophomore, started in 23 games last season and hit .333 while maintaining a .939 fielding percentage. Koch will likely see action at first base, and Broussard will be at second base. Third base remains open, but could be filled by a freshman or a transfer. “Kizer is not real flashy, but he is steady,” Clark said. “He will make the routine and occasionally will make a great play. Brad is a very good player and has a year of college ball under his belt.” The Eagles have a good nucleus to build around on the mound with the return of junior right-hander Curt Dixon. The 6-foot-5 Dixon led the team in starts (12), innings pitched (61.1), while finishing second in strikeouts (37). He posted a 4-8 record and ended the 2006 season with a 4.70 ERA. “Curt really showed a lot of improvement from his freshman season,” Clark said. “He has a chance to be one of the better pitchers in the ASC. He has a good slider and was throwing in the low-90 range in the fall. His record was not reflective of how well he pitched last year. I expect big things out of him this season.” Finnell and Koch, both right-handers, will see an increased role on the mound. Lettermen John Scheuring, D.J. Braswell, Tad Turner, Kizer as well as Cameron are capable pitchers on the staff. Scheuring and Braswell are left-handed. The Eagles do need to find a proven closer following a season-ending injury to Kyle Hudson. “Robby did a good job for us last year and he will see a bigger role on the mound this year,” Clark said. “Todd played well as a freshman. He is a big kid that has a lot of upside. John has a good arm, too, and has great potential. Bruce might have the best arm on the team and may be our best athlete. I expect him to log some innings. We are excited about the pitching staff. There are a lot of possibilities with this group. I think our pitching staff will be the best we’ve had since I’ve been here.” The outfield positions could see some new faces. Finnell played right field most of last season, and the speedy David Smith could fill one of the spots, according to Clark. Smith, a sophomore, had 19 starts and hit .294 with 10 RBI last year. Transfers Cameron and Glenn will bolster the outfield. Catching duties will go to Jimmy Pannell, the team’s only senior. The steady Pannell, who hit .311 with one home run, started in 20 games last season. “I like the enthusiasm of the team,” Clark said. “There is some inexperience and I think we will have some growing pains early on. But as the season goes by we will be fine. We have more athletic and hard-nose players than in past years, and we have more depth. We are moving in the right direction.”