Clarksville, Ark.-Building on last season?s late success, the U of O baseball team heads into the 2013 season with high hopes behind a veteran club and a considerable amount of momentum.
It was a tale of two seasons for Head Coach Jimmy Clark’s 2012 club. The Eagles posted a 6-13 record through the first half of the year and scored 4.4 runs per game. Ozarks then won seven of its final 11 games and improved its production to 5.7 runs per game over the final twenty games. Ozarks hit production also increased from 84 total hits to 115 during that stretch. It is that kind of improvement that Clark believes his team can build on.
“I just think we got comfortable and started playing better as a team,” said Clark. “We began playing with more confidence. The guys started to figure it out toward the end of the year. The hope is we carry that forward into this season. We need to start off a lot better than we did last year.”
After a rough start to the 2012 season, the Eagles could have easily given up. However, Ozarks would build momentum and eventually put itself into playoff contention.
“We looked like we were dead in the water, but we got to the point in our last weekend conference series where we had a chance to make the playoffs,” said Clark. “We played well down the stretch and I was pleased with the way we finished. We battled and played hard until the end. The guys want to continue how we played late last season.”
Ozarks will benefit from the return of five of its top six hitters. That group combined for over 60 percent of its hit production and 65 percent of its RBI production. Senior infielders Mitchell Powers and Nick Brill lead the way offensively. Powers, a three-year starter at short stop, earned All-Conference honors last season after ranking among the American Southwest Conference’s top-10 in walks (26) and on-base percentage (.464), while owning the team’s highest batting average (.336) and tying for the team-lead in doubles (9). He finished second on the team in home runs (3), runs (26), RBI (24) and slugging percentage (.500). Brill is penciled in at second base after a breakout season in 2012. He, too, earned All-Conference status after leading the team in RBI (28), total bases (66) and home runs (4). He tied for the team-lead in hits (46), while finishing second in batting (.331) and doubles (8), and third in runs (25) and slugging percentage (.475). Brill capped his breakout season by hitting safely in 30 games.
“You won’t find two better defensive middle infielders than Mitchell and Nick,” said Clark. “They are both outstanding defensively. Offensively, they have a good approach at the plate. They can hit for average and power.”
At the corners, Clark can turn to a number of talented players. Junior Tony Morales has been a two-year starter at first base, but is being pushed by sophomores John Singler, Max Townley and freshman Shawn Shelton. Morales was again one of the most productive players on the team hitting over .300 for the second straight year. The left-handed hitter finished second on the team in hits (42) and tied for second in RBI (24). Sophomore Peyton Johnigan is scheduled to be at third base. He had a standout rookie season in 2012, hitting .310 with 22 RBI and seven doubles in 33 starts. Seniors Zac Mitchell and Ian Bryan, along with sophomore Taylor Parker can play third.
“We have three or four guys that are good at first base,” said Clark. “Tony and John are the best offensively. Tony has been a two-year starter and he is being pushed for all he is worth by John. Max swings the bat well, too. Shawn may be the best defensive player out of all of them. Peyton is the best defensive third baseman we’ve had. He goes and gets the ball. He can hit as well and can be behind the plate. Taylor will be a utility player. He can play second, third and outfield. He will be a factor for us. He swings the bat well. Zac and Ian provide depth at third.”
Another key component of Ozarks’ offense will be outfielder Freddy Prince. The junior, who also pitches, was the team’s third leading hitter with a .323 average. Prince posted a team-high .505 slugging percentage with nine doubles, two homers and 17 RBI in 30 starts. Clark can choose from a slew of others for the remaining outfield positions. Senior Drew Clark, transfer Jordan Magee, freshman Dean Igert and sophomores Brandon Brewer and Rodger Montano are in the mix for outfield slots.
“Freddy will play in right,” said Clark. “Centerfield is a battle right now. Rodger is probably the best defensively. Drew can do a little of everything. We are hoping he can step it up and be the player he has the potential to be. In leftfield, we have Jordan, Brandon and Dean.”
Not only does Ozarks have a number of its top hitters back, the 2013 team also returns nearly the entire pitching staff. The group is led by a talented collection of juniors. Tyler Erickson, Jeffrey Works, Bo Thomas and Prince logged a combined 165.0 innings in 2012. But it was Bryan who had the All-Conference year. The senior was a key in the bullpen for the Eagles leading the team in appearances (14), saves (2) and ERA (3.23). The right-hander tossed 30.2 innings and finished with a 2-1 record. Additionally, Montano saw action in 12 games on the mound and sophomore Nathan Cedor made three starts.
“Our junior class has logged a lot of innings,” said Clark. “They pitched as freshmen and sophomores. The hope is they will continue to make strides. You are only as good as your pitching staff.”
The right-handed Erickson proved to be among the most durable pitchers in college baseball as he led NCAA III for much of the season in complete games. He posted a 5-5 record with a 4.48 ERA in 62.1 innings of work. Erickson finished with eight complete games in ten starts. Works, also a right-hander, led the team in innings pitched (62.2) and went 2-3 with a 5.74 ERA. Prince made six starts and fanned 20 in 32.2 innings.
“We preach to our pitchers to pound the strike zone,” said Clark. “Tyler is a strike thrower. He is in better shape and been in the weight room. He is very serious about being the best he can be. I expect big things from him. Jeffery has gotten stronger. He gives us a chance every time out. Bo was set for a big year before an injury last year. He and Freddy could be starters or come out of the bullpen. Freddy has electric stuff. He throws harder than anyone we’ve ever had.”
Clark has the luxury of using a number of others on the mound.
“There is a good mix of other guys as well,” said Clark. “We will take these first few weeks and see how it comes together. Our biggest challenge is trying to figure out roles for guys. Rodger could be a starter or a reliever. Alex Rodriguez has improved and Ian is probably our most effective pitcher coming back. He was a long relief guy last year. He could be a third game starter, too. He can throw his changeup and breaking ball in any count. The thing about our staff is we are not going to be overpowering, but rather be a staff that can throw a lot of strikes and throw off-speed pitches in fastball counts. I’m excited about that.”
Clark hopes a pair of newcomers can also contribute on the mound. Freshmen Danny Gable and Brian Roberts come in with expectations of helping immediately.
“I think Danny will help us on the mound somewhere,” said Clark. “He has good demeanor. He throws three pitches for strikes. Brian is the only left-hander we have. He is raw, but has potential.”
Sam Shook is penciled in as the starting catcher. The sophomore hit .267 in 15 starts.
“Sam does a great job behind the plate,” said Clark. “Offensively, he has made some strides. He can run, too.”
On paper, the Eagles appear to have enough talent and depth to put last season behind them. The challenge lies within being consistent throughout the 40-game regular season.
“Being able to score runs on a consistent basis is an area of concern,” said Clark. “We struggled at times to score runs last year. We would like to get off on the right foot and gain confidence early. We need to feel like we belong. We will have to see how well we hit the ball and how consistent we score runs. I think the pitching and defense will be there. There is a lot of upside to this club.”
Overall, Clark believes his 2013 club has more depth than in recent years.
“It is probably the most depth we’ve had in the last four years,” said Clark. “Our players have to understand their roles. We want them to get at-bats and keep them ready. Opportunities will arise and how they handle their chances is how they will get on the field.”
Ozarks has missed the playoffs the past three seasons, a streak Clark hopes will end in 2013. The Eagles finished 15-24 overall and 5-13 in the ASC in 2012.
“We want to make the playoffs,” said Clark. “We need to execute and win those tight ballgames. Those games are usually the difference in making the playoffs.”
Ozarks opens the season against Huntingdon College at the Millsaps College Invitational February 8 in Jackson, Mississippi.