Clarksville-Ark.-After earning their third straight trip to the post-season a year ago, the Eagles aim for a stronger finish after faltering late in the year and taking an early exist from the playoffs.
When the Eagles take the field for the 2010 season, they will no doubt remember how 2009 ended. Ozarks lost seven of its last nine games, two of which came in the playoffs. While Head Coach Jimmy Clark realizes there is satisfaction in qualifying for post-season play, his focus in 2010 will revolve around finishing stronger.
“We were not happy with the way things finished out last year,” said Clark. “We will try to use that as motivation. It’s now how you start, it is how you finish. We want to be consistent and not have the ups and downs. Our goal will be to play on an even keel all year long.”
Ozarks went 17-25 overall and 9-9 in the American Southwest Conference East Division, good enough for third place in the East Division. The Eagles made the playoffs, but Clark’s club fell to Texas Lutheran in the first round.
“Make no mistake about it, we had an off year last year and we weren’t happy,” said Clark, who enters his ninth year at Ozarks. “We are developing a little bit of a tradition and that is something the program didn’t have several years ago. Hopefully, we can make the playoffs again and make a run in it. Our goal is the same every year. We want to win the conference tournament, advance to regionals and then go to the World Series. But we have to get hot at the right time.”
In order to improve their post-season aspirations and finish stronger as the season winds down, Clark knows his club must get a better performance on the mound, and his hitters must display more patience at the plate. Clark will likely call on three juniors to figure into the conference weekend rotation. The staff is anchored by hard-throwing right-hander Bobby Osburn. Fellow juniors Jonathan Cox and Travis Conner will also vie for a spot in the conference rotation. Osburn, who appeared in 18 games, second-most on the staff, finished with a 2-1 record. The 6-foot-1 right-hander recorded 21 K’s in 31.2 innings of work and posted a 6.82 ERA.
“Bobby has a live arm,” said Clark. “He keeps the ball down and has a lot of movement. He has a great slider. He has been a reliever in the past, but we want him to be a starter. This fall he was our most consistent pitcher. We hope he can step into the conference rotation and go deep into the game.”
Cox, who will also see time in the outfield, started three games on the mound and finished with a 0-1 record. Clark felt confident enough in Cox to start him in game one of the playoffs against Texas Lutheran.
“With Jonathan, everything he throws is down and it moves,” said Clark. “He was a guy that we anticipated a big year out of last season but he got hurt. He didn’t have the chance to pitch many innings for us.”
Conner started in six games and posted a 1-2 record. In 11 appearances, he fanned 24 and logged 34.2 innings. Conner had a standout game against Arkansas Tech University when he went 7.2 innings and struck out three.
“Travis is a typical left-hander,” said Clark. “He has movement and keeps the ball down. He showed the most improvement of any pitcher we had last year. He threw as good a game against Arkansas Tech as anybody threw for us all season. I think he has a chance to be very good.”
Clark believes his starters must go deep into the game in order to be successful.
“We ask our starters to give us seven innings or more,” said Clark. “If they can do that, it shortens our bullpen up and we can have a lot of success. I am happy about those three guys.”
Senior right-hander Bill Smith leads the pack out of the bullpen. Smith, who averages one strikeout per inning, has demonstrated the ability to be successful late in games. Fellow seniors John Phillips and Tad Turner will provide depth to the pitching staff.
“Bill’s numbers have been good the past two seasons,” said Clark. “Hopefully, he can assume a bigger role this year. We would like to see John and Tad step up as well.”
Smith went 2-1 with a 8.62 ERA in 15.2 innings of work. He logged 2.1 innings and struck out three in the first round of the playoffs. Phillips and Turner saw spot duty a year ago. Also figured into the mix is junior right-hander Brett Wood, who went 2-0 in 2008. He has logged 60.1 innings in his career.
“We have to pitch better than we did last year,” said Clark. “We have to figure out the roles of our relievers. Casey Carlson has a chance to be good for us. There will be other freshmen in that mix as well.”
After finishing among the ASC’s top hitting teams in 2008, the Eagles dropped to last in team batting average (.280) in 2009.
“We need to be more patient at the plate,” said Clark. “As a team, we don’t like to walk a lot. We want to have productive at-bats every time at the plate. I am more interested in scoring runs. We’ve had guys in the past that may not have had high batting averages but still drove in runs. Our run production will be better than last year, but scoring is still not going to be an easy thing for us. I think it could be if we have some guys in the bottom of the order produce like they are capable of.”
Run production and hitting for average are certain to improve as Ozarks boasts the top shortstop and the top two hitting catchers in the entire league. Cory Briggs, Jeremy Hogan and Scott Dietz are potentially the best middle-of-the-order hitters in the ASC. Briggs, a 2008 Second Team All-America shortstop, was named to the ASC All-East Division Second Team last year. He hit .280 with 21 runs and 17 RBI in 30 games. He was the ASC East Division Preseason Player of the Year going into last season but missed several games due to an injury.
“Cory will be as good as anyone around,” said Clark. “I think he probably put some added pressure on himself last year. Hopefully, he will let his ability take over. He is definitely one of the top players to ever play here and could be the best after it is all said and done. Jeremy and Scott will be very good. We will have good hitting in the middle of the order. I’m excited about that, but we need some of our young guys to come through and produce, too.”
Hogan’s numbers proved he was among the top catchers in the region. The junior led the team in batting (.357), home runs (11), RBI (44), slugging percentage (.700), hits (50), on-base percentage (.443) and total bases (98). He ranked second with 13 doubles. He hit safely in 31 games and finished the year with a 13-game hit streak.
Dietz, a junior catcher, played in only 11 games due to an injury. He hit .394 with 20 total bases and posted a .606 slugging percentage. Dietz was a major part the Eagles’ success in 2008 when he was named First Team All-Conference.
“Both Jeremy and Scott are big, strong kids and competitors,” said Clark. “I’m excited about the potential of those two. We have had the best catchers in the conference recently and this year will be no exception. That is a good problem to have. We need to figure out how to get both of them in the lineup. They will probably both play a second position. With Zac (Mitchell) and Sam (Davidson), we have some depth. Hopefully, we can groom them as we go.”
Dietz could fill in as a designated hitter, but another player to keep an eye on as a potential designated hitter is Michael Prusator, who Clark described as having the most power on the team. Prusator hit .294 in 11 games.
Clark’s team will remain among the top defensive clubs in the conference. Ozarks finished with a .970 fielding percentage in conference play, the highest in the 15-team league.
“Playing defense is as important as your pitching staff,” said Clark. “At our park, you have to rely on catching the baseball and we do a good job of that. We make a conscious effort to work on that in practice. We will be as good if not better defensively as we were last year.”
Briggs anchors the infield at short, while Dietz or a newcomer could play at first base. Second base and third base are question marks at this time, but there are a number of viable candidates, including a group of newcomers, who could fill in the rest of the infield.
“Cory is the anchor at short,” said Clark. “We have some viable candidates at third. Ian (Bryan) looked the best in the fall. Mitchell (Powers) could play there and so could Ashdon (Ayling). All three of those guys could play second as well. Jacob (Robbins), a junior college transfer, could help at first.”
The outfield will again have both speed and top-notch defensive ability. Sophomore center fielder Chris Driedric returns after having an error-free rookie season. The left-hander started in 31 games and hit .234. He did not commit an error in 37 games played. Rounding out the outfield positions could be Cox, Hogan, Arturo Perez, or perhaps a first-year player. Perez has a keen eye at the plate and has five starts under his belt. He hit .235 in 13 games.
“Chris is as good defensively as we have had here,” said Clark. “He has made some strides offensively. He has a year under his belt and will be improved. Cox’s versatility could land him in left field. He is good defensively. He is fast and can steal some bases. He is a lead-off type guy. Freshman Mike Schmeck won the right field job in the fall. Arturo will be in the mix, too. We will try a lot of different guys out at first and third and the corner spots in the outfield to see how it all works out. We are looking for our best nine.”
While there may be a few unknowns heading into the season, Clark does have options around the diamond.
“We have a lot of things up in the air,” said Clark. “The first month of the season we will probably platoon and see who does the best job. Hopefully this will allow us to develop some depth. I’m excited about this freshman class as a group. It is one of the more talented classed we have brought in.”
Consistency, too, is a key to the 2010 team, something the Eagles must improve on from last year’s up-and-down season.
“We didn’t do a very good job playing game-to-game last year,” said Clark. “You can’t live on what you’ve done in the past and we tried to do that a little bit last year. We have some potential and I’m excited about the talent we have, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
The Eagles open the season this weekend against Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.