Clarksville, Ark.-Expectations remain high for the 2009 baseball team following a record-setting 2008 year, but head coach Jimmy Clark is cautiously optimistic when dissecting the upcoming season.
It was a banner year for the 2008 club as they went a program-best 32-11, produced three All-Americans and were ranked as high as #14 in the nation. On paper, the Eagles appear equipped with just as much talent as last season, with five starting position players and two starting pitchers back, in addition to a pair of impact transfers. After having the program’s most successful season in school history, Clark warns the team’s success will hinge on how hard they work, not on last year’s accomplishments.
“You can’t rest on your laurels,” said Clark, who is entering his eighth year at Ozarks. “We can’t think about what we did last year. We need to constantly work. The reality is you have to get after it daily. We preached that all fall. There is a lot of room for improvement.”
Two of Ozarks most prolific players – pitcher Curt Dixon and designated hitter Robby Finnell - have graduated. Dixon, who signed a professional contract at the conclusion of his senior season, went 9-1 a year ago. Finnell owns nearly every career hitting record at the school and was named a D3baseball.com All-American last season. In all, the Eagles lost 91 combined hits, 16 home runs and 75 RBI entering the 2009 season. Clark’s concerns can partially be eased in the return of two All-Americans. Junior shortstop Cory Briggs and senior outfielder Bruce Cameron were named to the ABCA/Rawlings All-America Team and D3baseball.com All-America Team, respectively. Briggs, a native of Greencastle, Pa., enjoyed one of the best offensive years in Ozarks’ history and was among the NCAA III leaders in a number of offensive categories. Briggs set single-season records in batting (.467), hits (79), doubles (19) and total bases (124). The strong-armed shortstop also drove in 54 runs and scored 56 times.
“Cory was outstanding,” said Clark. “Offensively, he is as good as there is in the conference. He hits for power and hits for average. I look for him to drive in even more runs this season. Defensively, he has range and a plus arm. He gets to the ball and makes plays the average shortstop doesn’t make.”
Cameron, a Houston, Texas, product hit .410 with 14 home runs and owned a .827 slugging percentage. His home run and slugging percentage totals were new single-season school records. The plate, however, was not the only place the outfielder made an impact. Cameron was plugged into the conference game three starting pitching role and went 5-1 with a 3.35 ERA in 11 appearances.
“Bruce is just an outstanding baseball player,” said Clark. “Defensively he made some of the best plays I have ever seen in the outfield. At the plate, he is patient and makes guys throw strikes. He has some pop to his bat, too. On the mound, he will be a conference starter. What sets both Cory and Bruce apart is their work ethic.”
Joining Cameron in the conference starting rotation will be senior Todd Koch. Koch, a right-hander, is another two-way player for the Eagles. Koch’s contributions on the mound stood out the most in 2008. A workhorse with his toe on the rubber, Koch logged 69.0 innings in 11 appearances and posted a 6-3 record. He went at least seven strong innings five times and worked into the ninth inning in two of those games. Koch also delivered at the plate for the Eagles hitting .413 with 17 RBI.
“Todd is a mainstay,” said Clark. “Pitching wise, I look for him to be the game one starter again. He throws strikes and has a good temperament on the mound. All you can ask is to give us a chance to win and he gives you that every time he’s on the mound. At the plate, he has the potential to hit 10 homers and drive in 40 or 50 runs.”
Clark hopes to benefit from the addition of transfer Bobby Osburn. Osburn, a right-handed pitcher, spent his freshman season at Millsaps College and went 2-0 with a 2.01 ERA in 15 appearances. Osburn will be in the mix as one of the conference starters, according to Clark. The Eagles’ bullpen is happy to have the electric left arm of John Scheuring back for one more season. Scheuring is a two-time All-Conference player and will be expected to log even more innings this year. He had 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings of work and notched three saves last season. Another lefty on the staff is senior D.J. Braswell, who is considered one of the more flexible pitchers on the team. Braswell has spent time as a reliever and a starter during his career. Braswell owned a 3-1 record and fanned 39. Junior Bill Smith, a side-winding right-hander, led the team with a 2.03 ERA in nine relief appearances. Jonathan Cox, a right-handed sophomore, will see more action on the bump this season and Travis Conner, a sophomore, adds another left-hander to the pitching staff.
“It is nice to have two left-handers with a considerable amount of experience,” said Clark. “Everyone wants more lefties, especially a guy with the type of arm John has. He has a live arm with a lot of movement. We hope to stretch him a little more this season. If it works out, he may become a starter. We need to get more than 30 innings out of him. I would love for him to throw 50 innings or more. D.J. was our non-conference starter last year and did a good job. The logical move is to slide him into the conference rotation, but he could be a reliever, too. He gives you a chance to win because he keeps hitters off balance. He pitched well against some very good teams last season.”
“Bill had a lot of success last year,” said Clark. “He doesn’t walk many guys and had a good ERA. Bill is a guy that has been a reliever the last few years and he will do the same this season. He is a capable guy we can depend on. I look for him to continue to grow into his role. Jonathan has a live arm and throws a good sinker. He could be a reliever or a starter. He will be vying for one of those conference spots. Travis will be in position to start in non-conference games. He is a big tall lefty that throws hard. He has a lot of ability.”
Clark hopes the increased competition on the veteran pitching staff translates into a solid year on the mound.
“The thing I like about the pitching staff is we have a lot of competition,” said Clark. “You can never seem to have enough pitching. I think it could be as good or even better than last year.”
With Briggs entrenched as the starting shortstop, senior Logan Kizer rounds out the middle infield. Kizer started in 34 games and hit .298. The durable Kizer provides the Eagles with a steady glove at second base.
“Logan is the glue to our defense,” Clark said. “He is so steady with his glove and will make the plays that are not routine. He turns the double play very well. At the plate, he gets deep in the count and makes pitchers work. He is a perfect bottom of the order type guy.”
Catching for the Eagles will be juniors Scott Dietz and Jeremy Hogan. Dietz was named to the All-Conference First Team after hitting .320 and supplying three home runs and 24 RBI. Hogan battled injuries last season and saw action in only eight games. Both could see time at other positions, according to Clark.
“Scott does a good job behind the plate,” said Clark. “He is sound defensively. Our pitchers have a lot of confidence in him with runners on base. He had some big hits in clutch situations last year. I have high expectations for him this year.”
Perhaps the biggest question mark is who will man the corners.
“Third base is a big question mark,” said Clark. “That is the biggest question mark we have. We just need to find someone dependable who can make the routine play.”
Transfer Andrew Teaster returns to the Eagles after playing at Evangel College in 2008 and is a possibility at first base. In 2007, the sweet-swinging lefty earned All-Conference honors after hitting .412 and driving in 22.
“First base was a question mark, but hopefully we have addressed that with having Andrew back,” said Clark.
Joining Cameron in the outfield will be senior David Smith and sophomore Freddy Flores. Smith is the catalyst for the Eagles offense and earned All-Conference honors in 2008. He hit .401, scored 40 times, stole 19 bases and did not commit an error. Superior defensively, Smith has one of the best arms on team, and earned the ABCA/Rawlings All-West Region gold glove award in 2008.
“David is the unsung hero of the team,” said Clark. “He doesn’t say a whole lot, he just plays hard. He sets the tone for us as the lead-off hitter. We need him to cause problems for the opposing pitchers. He is a guy who can hit the ball in the infield and beat it out. Speed doesn’t go into slumps. And, he is outstanding defensively.”
Flores has battled injuries and is a welcome addition to the lineup with his left-handed stick.
“Freddy is a very capable player,” said Clark. “He needs to emerge. He has never been an everyday starter and now he will have the opportunity to do that. It will be interesting to see how he plays.”
Ozarks, which finished in second place in the division with a 13-5 conference mark, can build on momentum built off two straight solid seasons, including their highest conference finish under Clark.
“Over the last few years we have been better and we had a nice year last season and we want to build on that,” said Clark. “We have a lot of kids back and I think the guys know what it takes to be successful. In order for us to have a good year, we need guys to step up and produce for us. Those guys stepping into starting roles need to pick up the slack.”
Ozarks opens the season at home against Hendrix College February 3.