Clarksville, Ark.-With a year of experience under their belt, U of O head baseball coach Jimmy Clark expects his 2004 squad, mostly made up of sophomores, to show more consistency and obtain their goal of having a winning season.
"They’ve been through a whole college season and we are expecting a little bit more from them," said Clark, referring to the team’s sophomore class of 15. "We lost some of our confidence last season after losing some close games to some good teams. They know what to expect this year. They’ll figure out how to win some of those close ones." As many as six sophomores could start for Clark’s defensive-minded Eagles. Ozarks was superb in the field a year ago setting a school record with a .958 fielding percentage. A young, but talented defensive unit combined with a strong pitching showing will equate into a successful year, according to Clark. "I think the biggest improvement may be our bullpen," said Clark, who is beginning his third year as skipper. "We’ve got some guys that can go in and get people out. Last season we didn’t have a lot of consistency in that area. But the strength of this team is our defense. We were third in the conference and thirtieth in the nation in fielding percentage last season. The key to our team will be how well our pitchers perform. If we can throw the ball well enough we will win some games. We have more viable candidates to fill our pitching staff." Offensively, 123 of the team’s 219 runs last year were scored by Clark’s freshmen class and five players who hit at least .300 return this season. Justin Brown (.330), Anthony Brandon (.322), Frankie Collazo (.316), Brett Hays (.307) and Clint Phifer (.302) are expected to continue where they left off last season. Hays, a first baseman/designated hitter from Little Rock, earned ASC Freshman of the Year honors last season after driving in 23 runs and leading the team in runs (31), total bases (57) and stolen bases (10). Hays tied for the team lead in hits (39) and doubles (9) while collecting 12 multiple hit games and hitting three home runs. Brown, an outfielder from Alma, recorded 22 RBI’s and 33 hits. Brandon, a third baseman from Rogers, ranked second on the team in on-base percentage (.431) while driving in 17 runs and Phifer, an outfielder from Benton, had a team-best 31 RBI’s to go along with 39 hits. "We will swing the bat better this season," said Clark. "Brett Hays had a big year for us last season. He had a solid year at the plate and he has a real good work ethic. I think he will have another productive year. Justin Brown had a solid year and I expect him to be a major contributor. Clint Phifer has led our team in RBI’s the past two seasons and I look for him to produce runs. Anthony Brandon is probably our best overall player. He swings the bat well and doesn’t strike out much. Defensively, he’s very good, too. He can get to a lot of stuff at third base because he has deceptive quickness. He will also pitch for us. He throws in the upper-80’s." Sophomores Sean Pratt, Rusty Farrin and Brian Heckmann will see plenty of action in the infield and provide defensive stability. Pratt, from Conway, played in 25 games recording 14 hits. Farrin, from Pocahontas, hit .278 and recorded 24 RBI’s, second-best on the squad. Heckmann, from Little Rock, was the only player to start in all 39 games and collected 19 RBI’s. Clark feels good about his outfield situation which includes seniors Cliff Ford and Todd Vandevoir along with junior transfer Caleb Hilton. Those three along with Brown and Phifer will give the Eagles a sound outfield rotation. Ford, from Lindale, Texas, led the team with a .455 slugging percentage and Vandevoir, from Bentonville, ranked sixth in the nation in walks per game (1.03). Junior Chris Harrell, a native of Plaquemine, Louisiana, scored 23 runs a year ago and will be the team’s catcher. The pitching staff returns Dustin Cole, Trevor Holbert, John Burgess, Brandon, Heckmann and Farrin, each of whom will play key roles in the pitching rotation. Both Justin Jennings and Chase Hale are coming off major injuries, and will have their chance to make an impact. Cole, a right-hander from Jacksonville, led the team in innings pitched (67.2), strike outs (37) and complete games (3). Cole earned ASC Pitcher of the Week honors last season. Holbert, a right-hander from Little Rock, led the squad in wins (4) and games started (9). Burgess, a right-hander from Winona, Texas, started in four games and finished with a 1-1 record. Clark will use several freshmen in the pitching rotation. "We brought in some freshman that are capable players," said Clark. "Most of our freshman class will contribute on the mound. This is a solid freshman class, and we got help where we needed help and that was on the mound." The Eagles, who were picked to finish seventh in the ASC preseason poll, finished last season with a 12-27 overall record and a 5-19 record in the conference. But a solid fall campaign and more competition among players has Clark believing positive things are ahead for the upcoming season. "I was real happy with fall ball," said Clark. "There was a lot of good competition during our fall practices. We had guys compete all over the field. And when there’s nice competition, your team gets better. I feel like a real achievable goal this year is to be .500. We lost 16 games by 3 runs or less last season. If we can win some close games early on, their confidence will remain during the season. I’m hoping we can have a breakout year and win at least twenty games." The Eagles begin the season on February 7 against York College in Clarksville.