Clarksville, Ark.--The University of the Ozarks baseball team will travel to Clinton, Mississippi, to face Mississippi College this weekend in what will be the Eagles first American Southwest Conference East division game of the season.
Ozarks is coming off a three-game sweep against Hardin-Simmons University, which was their first sweep of an ASC West division opponent since Ozarks joined the league in 1996. Mississippi College, who are the favorites to win the ASC East division, will present a big challenge for the Eagles, according to U of O head coach Jimmy Clark. "We’ve got our work cut out for us playing against Mississippi College," said Clark. "We played them close two years ago at their place. But we just haven’t been able to get over the hump. If we want to be in the playoffs, this is a team we need to compete well with." Ozarks (11-3, 0-0) is 9-0 at home this season and are aiming for an appearance in the playoffs. "The Hardin-Simmons series was good for the program," said Clark. "That was probably the three best games we’ve put together since I’ve been here. It will give us momentum going into conference play. If we play like we did against Hardin-Simmons we will have a real good chance to go to the playoffs. Maturity has been a big reason this team has had some early success. We are not running all freshman and sophomores on the field, but rather a nice blend of upperclassmen with some talented freshmen. We’ve played pretty well up to this point in the season." The team ERA entering this Friday’s contest is 3.82, three and a half runs lower than last year’s ERA of 7.31. Junior left-handed pitcher Jedd Kirby (3-1) was named ASC East Division Pitcher of the Week after tossing a seven-inning, six-strikeout game to lift the Eagles to a 13-3 win in the series opener against HSU. Kirby owns a 3.10 ERA and has a team-best 16 strikeouts in 29.0 innings of work. Junior right-handed pitcher Brian Heckmann (4-1) also had a strong outing in his last start, and has only walked a total of eight hitters in his 25 innings of work. Heckmann owns a 3.96 ERA. Several other pitchers have also stepped up including freshman right-hander Curt Dixon (2-0), sophomore right-hander and Clarksville native Kyle Hudson and junior right-hander Tyler Pickett. Dixon has worked as both a starter and out of the pen for the Eagles, throwing 20 innings while sporting a 3.60 ERA to go along with 12 strikeouts. Dixon’s biggest performance to date was his five innings of relief against Oklahoma Wesleyan when he allowed zero runs while striking out four in the Eagles 6-4 win in extra innings. Pickett (1-0), who like Dixon has started and pitched in relief, has nine strikeouts in 11 innings of work. Hudson, who led the Eagles with four wins and four saves last season, has seen limited but important action this season. In his six and one-third innings pitched, Hudson has six strikeouts and a 1.42 ERA. The Eagles pitching is not the only difference this season. In their three-game set against HSU, the offense tallied 41 hits and 33 runs. Leading the way offensively is freshman infielder Todd Koch, who is hitting a smooth .476 and is tied for second on the team with 15 RBI. Heckmann, freshman Robby Finnell, junior Tyler Gideon and junior Anthony Brandon are all hitting at or above the .400 mark. Junior Brett Hays is coming on as of late and raised his average over the weekend to .370. Junior Justin Brown leads the team with 13 walks and has an on-base percentage of .426. As a team, the Eagles are hitting a collective .384, second-best in the conference. Additionally, the offense has 15 home runs in 14 games. The Eagles do have to improve on the defensive end as they have made 32 errors, just 19 off the mark from what the Eagles made the entire 2003 season when they finished 30th in the nation in fielding percentage. A bright spot for the Eagles’ defense has been found in catcher Chris Harrell. Harrell, whose average pop is consistently below 2.0, has thrown out fifty percent of opposing base stealers. The senior is also hitting .333 and leads the team with 16 RBI. The first pitch in Clinton is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. Friday night with a double-header to follow Saturday.