Clarksville, Ark.-Despite missing the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, the Eagles have reason for high hopes entering the 2011 season.
A core group of sophomores, combined with a pair of veteran pitchers, will be keys to an Eagles’ resurgence. The 2011 club also features the top freshmen pitching staff head coach Jimmy Clark has had in a decade at Ozarks. While things look brighter for the Eagles, Clark understands his team must find its identity in order to extend play into late April and beyond. Molding a young team and finding the right everyday players will likely take time. The veteran Clark will platoon at a number of positions early on.
“We will have juniors and seniors playing, but the majority of our guys will be those sophomores and freshmen,” said Clark. “We will start a lot of sophomores and play a lot of freshmen. With our youth, we will have some inconsistency. Hopefully, by the time we get into our side of the conference we will have a good feel for who should be everyday players.”
Missing the playoffs in 2010 has been on the mind of the players and coaching staff since last April. The Eagles posted a 7-10 mark in the American Southwest Conference East Division and finished 14-26 overall. Clark believes last year’s slump has provided motivation to his team.
“I think there was a lot of disappointment after we didn’t make the playoffs,” said Clark. “The guys have done a good job of working hard during the off-season. The guys have had a good attitude and work ethic. I think we will have some ups and downs because of our youth. We just need to have that grinder’s mentality and work day after day.”
The bulk of the offensive production could come from the sophomore class. Mitchell Powers, Jake West, Ian Bryan, Chris Young, Nick Brill, Drew Clark and Jacob Robbins all had starting experience their rookie seasons. Additionally, the sophomore class is bolstered by the return Michael Prusator and Randon Webb, neither of whom played last season.
Powers was voted to the All-Conference Team in 2010. The shortstop proved to be among the league’s top freshman, hitting .359 with 24 RBI. He led the team in doubles (12) and finished second on the team in hits (47) and runs (27). He was particularly strong in the final 20 games of the season, hitting .428 and driving in 19 runs. Anchoring the outfield will be West, who with Powers, are the team’s leading returning hitters (.359). In 22 games, West collected 23 hits and 11 RBI. He hit .400 in his final 14 starts of the season. Bryan, a third baseman, started in 29 games, hitting .284 with five doubles and 11 RBI. He totaled 27 hits. Young, a catcher, started in 21 games and hit .256. He collected 20 hits and 10 RBI.
“Mitchell has a chance to be one of the better players we’ve had,” said Clark. “He hits the ball well from gap to gap. He has gotten stronger since last year. He strikes the ball hard. He squares the ball up as good as anybody I’ve coached here. We expect big things from him. West showed signs of being a very solid player. He is a blue-collar guy. He puts the ball in play. He has gotten stronger and we hope he can translate some of those singles into extra base hits. I think he will have a good year. Ian hit well last year. We need him to drive in more runs and he is capable of that.”
Brill, Clark and Robbins have a combined 23 starts among them. Each will be expected to play bigger roles this season. The catching duties could fall to Robbins or Young. Robbins hit the ball well in the fall and Young is healthy again, according to Clark. Junior Zac Mitchell started in nine games last season and will be thrown into the mix at third or second.
An injury to junior Chris Driedric leaves a void at the lead-off spot for Clark. Driedric is scheduled to return for the final stretch of the 2011 season, but Clark isn’t sure who will fill that spot in the meantime. Speedy freshman Hunter Guffey is one viable option.
The injury to Driedric also leaves the center field position open. While West is entrenched as the starter in left field, there is plenty of competition for the remaining outfield positions. Steady senior Arturo Perez has the experience and will be counted on to increase his role this season. But first-year players Freddy Prince, Chris McIntyre and Brandon Brewer, along with sophomore Drew Clark, are battling for the two other spots.
“Perez works harder than anybody we’ve got,” said Clark. “He is the type of player that does things others are not willing to do. He has always been a role player, but he will have the opportunity to expand that. We will do a lot of platooning in the outfield early on. We have two spots that are wide open.”
The addition of Prusator and Webb provide the team with some much-needed power, according to Clark.
“Michael and Randon are two guys that didn’t play last year,” said Clark. “They are very capable players and have power. Michael is a logical designated hitter, but we have several guys that are battling for that. He could work his way into the outfield, too.”
Webb and freshman Tony Morales are vying for time at first base.
No doubt relying on an offensive spark will be senior pitchers Bobby Osburn and Travis Conner. Both are penciled in as conference starters and both appear primed for standout seasons.
“For us to be good, those two guys will have to be good,” said Clark. “They have shown signs of brilliance. Bobby on certain days was as good as anybody. If we can get him to do some things consistently he can be one of the better pitchers in the league. Travis pitched well in terms of consistency. He is confident and has the mentality to throw a lot of innings. I expect good things from each of them.”
Osburn logged a team-high 56.1 innings with a team-best 51 strikeouts. He finished the year with a 7.03 ERA and a 1-6 record. A starter in 11 games, the right-handed Osburn is on the cusp of being one of the elite pitchers in the ASC.
“Bobby has a good fastball,” said Clark. “His changeup has come along as well. He has the tools. We need him to go deep in the game. We will pitch him for all he is worth.”
The left-handed Conner posted a 5.31 ERA and 2-5 record in 15 appearances. The 6-foot-4 Conner fanned 39 in 42.1 innings of work. Conner, too, has the tools to develop into one of the ASC’s best.
“Travis is unique in that he can throw all fastballs and it runs enough that he gets people in trouble,” said Clark. “He is very good when he throws in on right-handers and he freezes them up. He has a decent breaking ball and his changeup has gotten better.”
Clark is excited about the arms in this year’s recruiting class. The tenth-year coach called it the best he has seen at Ozarks.
“This is the best freshmen pitching class I’ve had here,” said Clark. “The thing I am excited about is we probably have as much arm strength as we have ever had. There will be some young kids that will be keys to our success on the mound. There will be some ups and downs as they adjust to the college game. Hopefully as the season goes on they will get a little more consistent. We will throw a lot of them out there early and see what they can do and give them the opportunity to rise to the challenge.”
In fact, the third conference starter could come from the freshmen class.
“Lefthander Michael Skimbo is working hard to get healthy,” said Clark. “Freddy and Sam Brownwood have plenty of ability. All three of those guys have high ceilings. Jeffrey Works, Jacob Nall and Bo Thomas will help in some capacity.”
Nonetheless, Clark knows his staff must improve on its 7.83 ERA from a year ago, and a closer must be established to shore up the staff.
“As a staff, we need to throw secondary pitches for strikes and keep people off balance,” said Clark. “We are making a conscience effort to throw inside. We will have to figure out who the closer is as the season plays out. Freddy makes sense. He throws hard with a sharp breaking pitch. He has as good as arm as we have ever had. Jeffrey is a viable option. We just have to figure out who can bounce back.”
Offensively, Clark believes the team will need to manufacture runs without using a lot of power.
“We have a handful of guys that have some power, but we will not be a home run hitting team,” said Clark. “We will need to be able to move runners. We are not real fast either. I suspect we will bunt a lot. One of the question marks is who will drive in runs. We have some guys that could be good offensively. They are just unproven. They are capable, it is just a matter of them going out and doing it.”