Clarksville, Ark.-A top four finish in the American Southwest Conference playoffs in 2007 and eight returning starters give the Eagles high hopes entering the 2008 season.
Head coach Jimmy Clark’s club is coming off a 2007 campaign that saw the Eagles produce its best season in over a decade. Clark’s 2007 club tied the modern-day school record in wins (24) and earned a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 1996. Ozarks won their first-round playoff series and advanced to the championship round, the program’s first-ever appearance in the four-team playoff.
“I think everybody is excited to begin the season,” said Clark, who is entering his seventh season at Ozarks. “From the time the season ended last season up until now, there has been a lot of excitement. Making the playoffs has brought a lot of enthusiasm to the program.”
The Eagles finished 24-21 overall and 10-8 in the ASC East Division, good enough for third-place. After savoring last season’s success on the diamond and getting a taste of the postseason, the Eagles are ready to make a playoff repeat in 2008.
“We weren’t just happy getting there last year, and I think we fully expected to go and win,” said Clark. “I think that playoff experience will definitely be a bonus. There is something to be said about experience in the playoffs. I like our club and we are expecting to get back into the tournament, but we have some work to do. We will be better, but so will the other teams in the conference.”
The 2008 team returns the likes of eight All-Conference players and 16 lettermen. And, Clark calls his pitching staff the deepest and most talented since he began in 2002. Offensively, eighty percent of the team’s run production returns as well. Among the other strengths, according to Clark, is the team’s maturity.
“I think we will be more mature,” said Clark. “This will be one of the more mature teams we’ve had. But the bottom line in baseball comes back to pitching, and last year’s staff was the best staff we’ve had to date. This year’s staff should be a good bit better than that one. And, it should be deeper. It will be solid.”
Returning All-Conference performers on the mound include senior Robby Finnell and junior John Scheuring. The staff also includes the arms of seniors Curt Dixon and Kyle Hudson, along with juniors Todd Koch, D.J. Braswell and Bruce Cameron. Sophomore Brett Wood is back and Clark believes a trio newcomers - Robert Mummey, Travis Conner and Jonathan Cox - will log plenty of innings. Seven of the eight returners have starting experience.
“Robby is as solid as there is,” said Clark. “He is not very flashy, but he is probably one of the best players in the conference. John had an outstanding year. He has really good stuff and is difficult to hit.”
Finnell, a right-hander, earned ASC All-East Division Honorable Mention as a starter on the staff. He finished third in the ASC in ERA (2.67), and posted a 4-3 record in 70.2 innings of work. Scheuring, a lefty, earned ASC All-East Division First Team coming out of the bullpen. He was second in the ASC in saves (5), while leading the team with a 2.32 ERA. He finished with a 3-3 record on the mound and struck out 43 in 31.0 innings of work. His five saves is a new single-season school record.
Dixon, a hard throwing right-hander, finished fifth in the ASC in strikeouts (65) and second in starts (13). He went 6-4 with a 5.67 ERA in 72.2 innings of work. He is the career leader at Ozarks in strikeouts (131). Hudson, a crafty right-hander, is back after an injury forced him to miss the 2007 season. In 2006, Hudson led the team with a 5-3 record, and was the team leader in saves (3) and appearances (17).
“Curt has a lot of experience having been a conference starter for three years,” said Clark. “He has a lot of ability, probably the most ability on the club. We are expecting him to have a good year for us. Hopefully, he can break through and be spectacular. Kyle has been one of the better guys we’ve had here. We will probably use him in a relief-type role. He throws strikes and his arm has bounced back from an injury. He or Robert could be our closer.”
Koch, a right-hander, pitched the school’s second modern-day no-hitter in 2007. He was 3-5 on the mound with a 6.63 ERA after logging 55.2 innings. Braswell, a southpaw, had a 3.43 ERA in 21.0 innings while going 1-0. Cameron logged 24.1 innings and finished with a 2-2 record.
“Todd at times was our best pitcher,” said Clark. “He was our best pitcher the first half of the season. We are anticipating him being a big factor on the mound. D.J. is a left-hander that throws strikes and challenges hitters. He keeps the ball down. We are expecting real good things from him this season. Bruce could be a non-conference starter.”
The right-handed Wood tied for the team lead in appearances (17) and went 2-2 with a 5.68 ERA.
“Brett will figure into the mix,” said Clark. “He’s coming off surgery, and that set him back a little bit, but he throws strikes and keeps the ball down. Robert is a big right-hander who throws very hard. He has the best slider on the team. Both Jonathan and Travis will log some varsity innings for us, too.”
The pitching staff has the luxury of having a speedy outfield to run down balls and an experienced middle infield playing behind them. The entire starting outfield is in tact for the 2008 season. Anchoring the outfield is senior left-handed hitter John Glenn. In his first year at Ozarks, Glenn made an immediate impact, winning the ASC East Division Newcomer of the Year award. He was also selected to the All-East Division First Team. Glenn hit .419, fourth-best in the ASC, and finished in the top ten in five other offensive categories, including hits (75), runs (57), doubles (16), total bases (103) and on-base percentage (.490). He totaled 39 RBI. Cameron gives the Eagles another offensive threat from his center field position. Cameron, who was All-East Division Honorable Mention, hit .345 with 34 RBI and recorded 9 steals. He also provided the Eagles with 74 total bases and 58 hits. Junior David Smith returns to his right field spot where he started in 44 games. Smith was also named to the All-East Division Honorable Mention Team. Smith will be another weapon in the arsenal as he hit .323 with 24 RBI and had a team-high 10 steals. Smith collected 51 hits, several of which were from bunts.
“I think defensively our outfield will be as good as anyone in the conference,” said Clark. “All three run very well. Not much will get down out there. But, they will also be offensive-minded at the plate. John is one of the best hitters in the conference. He is an outstanding offensive player. He is a table setter for us, a lead-off guy that can get on base. Bruce is very good offensively, too. He has a good eye at the plate and can run a little bit. David can really run and probably has as good as arm as any outfielder here.”
Freddy Flores will provide additional offensive power to the lineup as an outfielder. Flores, a left-handed hitter who returns from an injury, played in just eight games last season, but cranked out two home runs.
The middle infield is in tact with sophomore shortstop Cory Briggs and junior second baseman Logan Kizer, both of whom display solid defensive skills and good offensive production.
“Sticking a freshman at shortstop is asking a lot, but Cory did a good job for us,” said Clark. “He really came along towards the end of the year. He is a very good hitter. I think he will be very good for us both offensively and defensively.”
Briggs’ rookie campaign consisted of four home runs and a .303 batting average. He also totaled 28 RBI and seven doubles. The smooth-fielding Kizer hit .315 and collected 11 sacrifice hits.
Several players could see action at first base. Finnell, Koch, Mummey and Scott Dietz are the leading candidates. Finnell is one of the ASC’s marquee players heading into his senior season. He received All-East Division Second Team honors as a designated hitter after hitting .322 and 10 home runs. He set the school single-season RBI record with 51. Koch received All-East Division Second Team as a utility player. He hit .385 with four homers and drove in 33 runs. Koch had 5 doubles and 45 hits. Dietz hit .328 and collected 6 doubles in 14 starts.
“Robby and Todd are very good offensive players,” said Clark. “We will try to get their bats in the lineup any time we can.”
Clark believes third base may be the team’s biggest question mark. Among the candidates there are sophomore Brad Broussard and Mummey.
“There is some competition at third,” said Clark. “Ultimately, it will be who plays the best defensively.”
Behind the plate, newcomer Jeremy Hogan and Dietz will see time.
“Defensively, Jeremy has a little more ability in terms of throwing,” said Clark. “Scott will also figure in at first. Both guys can swing the bat.”
On paper, the 2008 Eagles appear ready to be a contender and make another playoff appearance, but Clark knows a tough non-conference schedule along with the usual stiff competition of the ASC will present its challenges to the up-start club.
“We have a good group back and I think we have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs again,” said Clark. “I think this group will be able to swing the bat and score runs. We will have some offensive options off the bench, too. Our conference schedule is always tough and our early non-conference schedule will be a challenge. Three of our first four opponents were ranked in the top 25 at one time last season. We will find out real early what we have.”
Ozarks opens the season at Lonnie R. Qualls Field on February 5 against Hendrix College. The nine-inning game starts at 1:30 p.m.