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Baseball Team Prepares For Upcoming Season

February 2, 2005
By cnp
Posted in Athletics

Clarksville, Ark.--Head coach Jimmy Clark has many reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming 2005 season. The Eagles will be built around numerous upperclassmen and will have an improved pitching staff, which could help the Eagles be one of the surprise teams of the American Southwest Conference. Additionally, the ASC has expanded their post-season championship playoff bracket from the division's top two teams to the top four.

"Our inexperience has been a factor the last two years," said Clark, who is entering his fourth year as head coach. "We played nearly all sophomores last season. This year, the majority of our ball club will be juniors and seniors and they’ve worked hard in the preseason." Clark believes this year’s pitching staff is the most talented he has had at Ozarks. "Our pitching staff is much better," said Clark. "Pitching will definitely be one of the keys to our success this year. The key to all baseball is good pitching and our pitching staff has improved quite a bit over last season. I really expect it to continue to improve a lot more. And if it will, that will be the key. We will win a lot of ballgames if our guys throw strikes and make people beat us." The pitching staff has a solid blend of returners along with two transfers and two freshmen that are expected to contribute immediately. "Jedd Kirby is a left-handed junior college pitcher that will help us a great deal this season," said Clark. "And if Brian Heckmann can continue what he did for us last season, we will have a chance to win any time those two pitch. Chase Hale is a talented pitcher who can throw hard and Kyle Hudson is back and will figure into the mix." Heckmann, a junior right-hander from Little Rock, led the team in strikeouts (33) and innings pitched (53.2) while going 2-5 on the mound a year ago. Hale, a sophomore right-handed slinger from Bentonville, pitched 22.0 innings a year ago and had 10 strikeouts. Hudson, a sophomore right-hander who owns several school pitching records, led the team with a 4-2 record and recorded four saves. The Clarksville native proved to be a top closer last season. Tyler Pickett, a transfer from University of Arkansas-Monticello, and freshmen Curt Dixon and Bill Martin, both from McAlester, Oklahoma, will have a chance to provide immediate help on the mound. Talented right-hander Dustin Cole, who battled an injury last season, returns for his senior year. Cole has pitched 78.4 innings during his career and carried the staff his freshman year. "Tyler pitched well at UA-Monticello," said Clark. "Curt and Bill will be able to help us immediately. All of these guys can throw in the mid-to-high 80’s and that is not something we’ve had in the past." With a more experienced club and a deeper pitching rotation, the Eagles hope to improve on last season’s record of 13-24. Ozarks also has their sights set on post-season play. "One of our goals is to make the conference post-season tournament," said Clark, whose team went 2-16 in league play a year ago. "We will be in a dog fight, but I think we have a chance to be there." Behind an improved pitching staff will be a steady and reliable defense. "I think our defense will be solid," said Clark. "We will be counting on a couple of freshman to help us defensively. The infield will be strong. Brian Heckman will play second base for us when he’s not pitching and Todd Koch will play the short stop position." Senior Chris Harrell has ample experience behind the plate. The speedy Plaquemine, Louisiana, native has scored 58 runs in his career. Anthony Brandon, from Rogers, will play third and first base will belong to Brett Hays, a native of Little Rock. A majority of the offensive production last season came from a reliable sophomore class. The junior class that includes Brandon, Heckmann, Hays and Justin Brown will carry a major part of the offensive load again. Brandon, a third baseman/designated hitter, was named to the ASC All-East Division Honorable Mention team last season. The right-handed hitter led the team in numerous offensive categories, including batting (.383), hits (51), RBI (32), doubles (7), total bases (67) and slugging percentage (.504). His .383 batting average placed him eighth in the conference while his 51 hits were good enough for tenth in the league. He ended the year riding a school-record 21-game hit streak. "Anthony was one of the best players in the conference last year," said Clark. "He could have been a first team all-conference performer at third base if he could have played there all season. He struggled with a shoulder injury last year. If he builds on last year’s success, he could have a monster year." Brown, an outfielder from Alma, hit .282 with 5 homeruns and 24 RBI a year ago. Heckmann gave Ozarks a lift at the plate by hitting .333 to go along with 5 doubles. Hays hit .252 and scored 23 runs. Ozarks also returns one of the premier players in the league in senior outfielder Caleb Hilton. Hilton received ASC All-East Division Second team honors last season after ranking second on the team in batting (.340), hits (36), home runs (3) and runs (23). The athletic Hilton ended the year with a .472 slugging percentage and collected 50 total bases. The Clarksville native had ten multiple-hit games. "Caleb was awfully good last season," said Clark. "It was his first time to play in three years. I expect more from him this season and I believe he will drive in more runs this year. I think our outfield will be solid. Both Hilton and Brown have speed and they get good jumps on the ball. Not a lot will fall in the outfield. It will be nice to have guys in the outfield who can swing the bat, too." Clark, however, still feels like his team needs to be more productive at the plate. "We have to get better at the plate," said Clark. "We’ve made steady progress and I think with a more experienced team we will be better. We have to score more runs and I think we will." The Eagles open the season with a double-header against Mid-America on February 5. Game time is set for 12:30 p.m.