Clarksville, Ark.-A young Eagles team took their lumps throughout a frustrating season in 2011, but things are looking up as that team is now a year older and return nearly every starter for the 2012 campaign.
With the 2011 season behind them, Ozarks is prepared to right the ship and make a run at the playoffs. Fueling the comeback will be a key contingent of sophomore players that saw significant action last season. It is that experience combined with a large number of starters back that has head coach Jimmy Clark believing the team can engineer a turn-around.
“We played a lot of young guys and I think we will be better this year,” said Clark. “By the end of last year, we didn’t treat them like freshmen. They were playing every day. Some of our guys have talked about how they have taken their lumps and this is the year we break through.”
Eight of the team’s top 11 hitters return, all of which have starting experience. On the mound, Clark will rely on the sophomore class for its three-man conference rotation. Around the infield, the Eagles return all four starters.
Ozarks, which finished 8-32 last season, must improve its run production and hit for a higher average. The Eagles ranked last in the American Southwest Conference in batting (.264) and runs (189).
“The college game has changed for everyone as a result of last year’s bat rule,” said Clark. “Guys with bad technique didn’t have a lot of success. We have to manufacture runs using the bunt, and the hit and run. You need to try to score one run an inning.”
Leading the charge to improve its offensive production is All-Conference performer Mitchell Powers. Powers, a shortstop, led the team in nearly every offensive category, including hits (46), home runs (5), RBI (32), doubles (9), total bases (72), slugging percentage (.471) and at-bats (153). He finished the year hitting .301 while scoring 23 runs. Powers also excelled in the Atlantic Baseball Confederation Collegiate Summer League where has was named an All-Star.
“Mitchell is an outstanding hitter and can hit the ball from gap to gap,” said Clark. “He can score runs and steal bases. He also has potential to hit home runs. And, he plays the game the right way.”
Sophomores Tony Morales and Freddy Prince were among the top three hitters on the team. Morales, a smooth hitting left-hander, led the team in batting (.353), walks (21), on-base percentage (.451) and sacrifice hits (7). As the first baseman, Morales finished second on the team in hits (42), doubles (7) and total bases (49). Prince, who played behind the plate and in the outfield, ranked third on the team in batting (.313) and doubles (6), while finishing second in RBI (17). It is perhaps on the mound where Prince can have the biggest impact. Clark believes Prince could be special there. He posted a 1-2 record and struck out 21 in 34.0 innings of work.
Centerfielder Chris Driedric returns for his senior season after hitting .287 in 29 starts. The standout defensive player did not commit an error last season. Michael Prusator, a senior, can play in the outfield, but will likely be the designated hitter. Prusator drove in 13 runs and hit two home runs a year ago. Junior second baseman Nick Brill hit .222 with three homers and 14 RBI in 28 starts and junior Ian Bryan hit .257 with 16 walks in 21 starts from his third base position.
“Tony and Mitchell are as good as hitters that I’ve coached here,” said Clark. “Chris is very good, too. Michael has not been healthy, but has a lot of potential. Nick has been a part-time guy and I hope with every day reps he can take over that position. He has some pop. I think Ian has the ability to drive in runs.”
Clark can choose from a bevy of players for the outfield. Driedric, Prince, senior Jonathan Cox, junior Drew Clark, sophomore Brandon Brewer and freshman Tyler Hydrick are battling for a spot in the outfield. John Singler is another freshman that Clark sees potential in as an outfielder.
“They are all pushing each other and making each other better,” said Clark. “This is the area where we have the most depth. We have six guys that are competing for playing time. We would like to be able to steal some bases and inject some speed into the lineup with this group.”
Cox and Hydrick are back after injuries. Prince could be a starter when he is not pitching. Brewer played in 19 games, and like Driedric, did not commit an error, while Clark is a versatile player.
“Jonathan can run and steal bases and create havoc on the bases,” said Clark. “He has a different skill set than some of the others. I am hoping he can be a table-setter. He will be competing with Brandon in leftfield.”
In 2010, Cox hit .265 with four doubles and saw significant action on the mound.
“Brandon is a solid all-around player and can give you good at-bats and go deep into counts,” said Clark. “Tyler is coming off surgery and could play in right field. He can run and steal some bases and is aggressive. Freddy ended up hitting in the middle of the order last year so he’ll need to be getting at bats. Chris is as good a defensive player as there is in the conference. Drew is a wild card and could play any of those outfield positions. He is athletic and has potential.”
Defensively, Clark believes his club is strong up the middle.
“We are strong up the middle and that is a starting point,” he said. “Chris is an outstanding defensive centerfielder and Mitchell will be as good as any shortstop in the conference. Nick or whoever emerges at second will be solid. The catcher position is one that is a bit of a question mark right now.”
Calling signals behind the plate could be senior Chris Young or a trio of newcomers. Young started in 20 games last season and produced five doubles and a .222 batting average.
“Chris is a guy that has played,” said Clark. “Sam Shook is good defensively. He will push Chris for all he is worth. Billy Easley and Peyton Johnigan will compete there, too. I think we will have some guys that eventually can be pretty good. We just need someone to emerge. We need more offensive production behind the plate, too.”
At the corners, Morales and Bryan are back at first and third, respectively. Junior Zac Mitchell will be competing for time at third base.
“I think Ian is in better shape and has an opportunity to be good,” said Clark. “Zac could also be productive there.”
The pitching staff will be made up mostly of the heralded sophomore class. Prince, Bo Thomas, Tyler Erickson, Jeffrey Works and Adam Waynick will be expected to carry the load.
“You can look at our youthful pitching staff as a strength or a weakness,” said Clark. “But this sophomore pitching staff is as good as I’ve had here.”
Erickson led the team in innings pitched (62.0), and tied for the team lead in wins (2), complete games (1) and games started (9). He finished second in strikeouts with 33. He owned a 6.68 ERA in 12 appearances. Thomas led the team in ERA (3.18) and appearances (18). He earned one save in 22.2 innings of work and finished with a 1-4 record and 17 strikeouts. Works posted a 1-1 record in 22.0 innings and appeared in 12 games. He recorded ten strikeouts and had a 4.91 ERA. Waynick threw 3.0 innings a year ago.
“Tyler was very good last year,” said Clark. “He will be a conference starter and I hope he can go deep into games. Freddy could be a game three starter. He has more upside than anyone I’ve ever coached. He has a very good breaking ball and when he throws it for strikes he is almost unhittable. He could be a two-pitch pitcher and be outstanding. Bo could go as a starter or reliever. He had a strong fall as a starter. Jeffery could be a starter or come out of the bullpen.”
Newcomers Casey May, Nathan Cedor, Josh Stoffregen and Rodger Montano will see time on the mound as will lefty Jacob Nall, who is returning from an injury.
“Casey, Nathan, Josh and Rodger will figure in somewhere,” said Clark. “We just have to figure out what their roles are.”
Clark also has high hopes for senior right-hander Robert Smith. The fiercely competitive Smith has the potential to be the closer.
“He is potentially a closer because he has the mental makeup,” said Clark. “He gives people fits because he is a strike thrower. He keeps the ball down and will figure in the bullpen.”
Clark believes the pitching staff will need to define itself as the season goes on.
“We need to have some guys emerge and assume some roles on the mound,” he said. “There are good arms in the freshmen class. We just need to figure where to utilize their strengths.”
As Clark sizes up his club, the veteran coach is aiming for improvement as the season progresses.
“I think we can be a team that shows improvement over the course of the year,” said Clark. “I think we may have some ups and downs while we are trying to figure out roles for our pitchers. There is potential with this club and I think we will be in the hunt for a playoff spot. Ultimately, our pitching will decide a lot of that.”
The Eagles open the season this weekend in the Wilson-DeMarini Classic in Jackson, Mississippi.