Clarksville, Ark.-The University of the Ozarks baseball team turned the corner last year after posting a 22-18 overall record, their first winning season in nine years, and hope to use that momentum to make a run at the post-season playoffs.
The Eagles are banking on a large senior class and a potent offensive attack to carry them into the playoffs for the first time since the school joined the American Southwest Conference in 1996. Last year’s winning mark also gives the team something to build on, according to head coach Jimmy Clark. “I’m hoping last year’s team laid the foundation for years to come,” said Clark, who was tabbed as the 2005 ASC East Division Coach of the Year. “We definitely want to improve from last season and make the playoffs. We can finally see a little light at the end of the tunnel.” The offense will be carried by four returning all-conference players, three of which are seniors. In all, Ozarks boasts eight seniors, each of whom will play a significant role. “We will probably start six seniors,” said Clark. “Most of the infield will be seniors. Each senior will contribute. Last season the team expected to win and that wasn’t the case three years ago.” Ozarks put together one of the top offensive teams in the league, hitting .338 as a club, third-best in the ASC. The team finished 25th in NCAA III in that category, and Clark believes his 2006 group can do even better. “We have basically all of our hitters back,” said Clark. “This should be a strength of our team. We will be a much better offensive club and we may need to be. We will have nine guys in the lineup that can hit. We will be able to put some pressure on our opponents. I’m excited about the offense, it should be a lot of fun.” Seniors Anthony Brandon, Caleb Hilton, Brett Hays, Justin Brown, Brian Heckmann and Tyler Gideon lead a strong contingent of skilled hitters. Sophomores Todd Koch and Robby Finnell are back to add firepower. Brandon earned ASC All-East division second team honors and was named to the ABCA/Rawlings All-West region second team last season. Hilton, Hays and Koch earned ASC honorable mention honors. Hilton grabbed a spot on the ABCA/Rawlings All-West region third team. Brandon, a designated hitter/third baseman, finished second on the team in batting (.404), RBI (37), total bases (85) and tied for second in on-base percentage (.455) and home runs (6). Brandon is the co-owner with Hays of the new single-season hit (59) record at Ozarks. Hilton, an outfielder/catcher, tied for fifth in the conference in home runs (11) while finishing sixth in runs (48) and total bases (104). Hilton led the team and set new single-season school records in home runs, runs, total bases, RBI (39), triples (3) and at-bats (165). He ranked second on the team in hits (57). Hays, a first baseman, led the team in stolen bases (13), tied for the team-lead in hits (59), finished second in runs (35), third in batting (.383), and started in all 40 games for the Eagles. “Anthony is as good as hitter as there is in the conference,” said Clark. “He had shoulder surgery so that is a question mark. When he’s healthy, he is a very good defensive third baseman. Caleb is as good a player there is in the conference. He’s very athletic and can do it all. We will ask him to catch for us. He may be our lead off man, too. Hays is a great hitter. The better the pitching, the better he hits.” Brown has started in 100 career games. Clark calls Brown a “great defensive centerfielder.” Heckmann splits time at shortstop and on the mound. He hit .302 and tied for the team lead in doubles (8). Gideon started in 33 games last season and hit .281 from a variety of positions in the infield. Koch, a shortstop/utility player, and Finnell, an outfielder, are expected to have solid sophomore campaigns. Koch finished seventh in the conference in batting (.418) and third in on-base percentage (.523). He led the team in both batting and on-base percentage as well as ranking second on the team in slugging percentage (.623) and third in hits (51), RBI (35) and total bases (76). He tied for second in home runs (6). Finnell hit .321 and finished fourth on the team in RBI (28) and tied for fifth on the team in hits (42) and tied for second in doubles (7). He finished fifth in total bases (63). “Todd is as talented a player I’ve coached,” said Clark. “Robby is as good as hitter as anybody on the team.” Hudson along with seniors Heckmann, Dustin Cole and Chase Hale and sophomores Curt Dixon and Bill Martin should give the Eagles a formidable pitching staff. Hudson, a junior right-handed pitcher, earned ASC honorable mention a year ago after finishing second on the team in ERA (2.93) while picking up a team-best two saves. He went 0-2 on the mound, but had 19 strikeouts in 30.2 innings of work. Hale, a hard throwing right-hander, went 1-1 with a 4.30 ERA and 19 strikeouts. Heckmann, a right-hander, collected five wins last season. Cole returns for his final season after an injury-plagued career, but has shown promise when healthy. The 6-4 right-handed Dixon went 5-4 with a 5.57 ERA and recorded 29 K’s. Martin, another right-hander, had ten strikeouts in 20.0 innings of work. “We have some talent pitching wise, but it is not as proven as it was last season,” said Clark. “We’ve got some young guys that need to come through. I think they can and will, but it may not reflect early in the season. Hudson is one of our best pitchers. He is so valuable closing out games. Heckmann is a solid all-around player for us.” The Eagles’ turnaround last season was dimmed by a below .500 conference record. At 8-13, the Eagles finished sixth in the ASC East Division standings. “We need to win at least two out of three in our conference match-ups,” said Clark. “We were good at home, but playing on the road is something we need to address. The guys get excited about playing in front of our fans and we want to keep that home field advantage. We simply have to get better on the road because from top to bottom the conference is as good as any NCAA III conference in the nation.” The Eagles open the season on the road against Harding University on February 3.