ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Tabor baseball coach John Sparks begins his third year as skipper of the Bluejays knowing he faces a daunting task to elevate the quality of personnel and consistency of play to make his team a competitive force in the KCAC.
Sparks looks to the five-year blueprint former Tabor head football coach Tim McCarty followed building his Bluejays into a title contender as a course of action for the baseball team, too.
“I think we are a little bit like the football team was a couple of years ago,” Sparks said. “We’re starting to get better now, but the guys still have to believe that we’re improving and continue to come out and improve every day.”
Sparks enters this season with former Bluejay players Sean Bechtold and Casey Witt as assistant coaches, along with former Hillsboro High School head coach Phil Oelke.
The Bluejays concluded the 2003 season with a record of 13-32, including an 8-16 KCAC record, which earned Tabor a tie for fifth place in the seven-team race.
Sparks said respect is still at arm’s length. The Bluejays were tabbed to finish at the bottom of the conference this season.
“We’re using this as a motivational tool,” Sparks said. “But in the end, it really doesn’t mean too much because it’s just a preseason poll.”
Sparks said he’s confident this year’s squad is an improved version from the prior two seasons, but he also knows the players have to prove that themselves.
“I told the guys they’re the ones who have to earn respect,” Sparks said. “They have to earn it by what they do on the field.”
With 12 returning letterwinners on this year’s team, Sparks is confident Tabor has the nucleus necessary to continue Tabor’s progression toward the top of the KCAC.
Headlining Tabor’s returning core are three all-KCAC selections from 2003.
Zavien Rivers was a second-team all-conference pitcher who compiled a 5-1 record in 43 innings of work.
His earned-run average of 3.20 led the Bluejay starter; opponents batted just .273 against him.
“He’s a competitor who has pretty good off-speed pitches,” Sparks said. “He certainly has the most experience of anyone on our staff this year.”
Earning honorable-mention all-conference honors was second baseman Grant Brubacher, who moves to shortstop this year.
Brubacher was third on the team with a .327 batting average, third in slugging percentage at .460, and third in hits with 37 while stealing nine bases in 10 attempts.
Defensively, Brubacher committed just four errors in 62 attempts while compiling a .965 fielding percentage.
“We’re really excited to move Grant over to shortstop,” Sparks said. “He’s extremely athletic and he’ll get to a lot of balls in the hole this year. He’s probably going to be our most consistent guy at the plate this year, too.”
Tabor’s third all-conference selection was first baseman Chance Miles, who batted .355 with 44 hits, including three home runs.
Miles was hit by pitches a team-high nine times while earning an on-base percentage of .475.
“We feel Chance has a lot of potential,” Sparks said. “Obviously, he’s a big strong guy who we think will develop into an outstanding player for us.”
Sparks said other returning letterwinners for the Bluejays include sophomore Mike Foquet (.261) behind the plate.
“He’s our catcher who has hit the ball really well so far this year,” Sparks said. “Right now we’re calling the pitches from the dugout so we can get a little bit better feel for what our pitchers can do. But hopefully we’ll be able to hand that over to Mike as the year progresses.”
Sophomore Keenan Morris (.298) will occupy third base.
“He started about half the year at third base,” Sparks said. “He does a nice job over there defensively and we hope he’ll continue to hit the ball well.”
In the outfield, J.R. Mendoza (.209) patrols center field.
“He’s one of our lone seniors,” Sparks said. “He’s got the most experience in the outfield so that’ll be a key position.”
Key to Tabor’s hopes on the mound will be returning letterwinners Gerald Goodale and Layne Frick.
“Gerald will throw quite a bit in middle relief,” Sparks said. “We really need someone to step up in that area and we hope he can help us out.
“Layne is a local guy who we’ll rely on to be our closer this year,” Sparks said. “He’s done a good job so far this year and we’ll need a good season out of him for us to be successful. He’s a key for us.”
Sparks said the addition of several quality newcomers improves the overall depth and quality of this year’s team.
“This is by far our best recruiting class,” he said. “We’re really excited about them and the future they hold for Tabor College.”
Heading the list are several pitchers who Sparks has relied on early on this spring.
Andy Womack (Wichita) and Scott Wolf (Grinnell) have taken spots in Sparks’ starting rotation.
Additionally, Aaron Smith (Maize) is recovering from early season arm problems and Sparks said the left-hander will add depth, initially in middle relief.
Freshman Tony Steiner (Gillette, Wyo.) takes over at second base. Sparks said the jump from high school to college isn’t easy.
“The adjustment comes (for pitchers) from facing guys one through nine that can hit and not just the top three or four is huge,” Sparks said. “For hitters, it’s getting used to facing guys who can throw three pitches for strikes consistently.”
Sparks said recruiting for Tabor doesn’t simply mean looking for the best athlete.
“We’re looking for people who fit well here so we’re trying to recruit excellent baseball players, but also excellent people,” he said. “We’re looking to recruit guys with character but also guys that will compete and love to play.”
Sparks said the current roster boasts 26 student-athletes, a manageable number.
“For not having a junior varsity program, we don’t really want anymore than that.”
Defense will be the catalyst to a great season, Sparks said.
“We’re averaging just over one error per game, which I’m really pleased with,” he said. “I think defense is the backbone of this team.”
But he said solid pitching is always a key element for success.
“You also have to have solid pitching that allows you to have a chance to win games,” he said. “We haven’t hit the ball nearly as well as I hoped we would early this year, but we’re working on getting some of the kinks worked out.”
Sparks said middle relief could provide the vital cog for a successful year for Tabor.
“We need somebody to step up because our starters aren’t always going to be able to finish games,” he said.
Hitting is also at the forefront of Tabor’s run at the conference title, according to Sparks.
“You can play good defense and pitch well, but in the end you still have to score runs to win a lot of ball games,” he said. “I’m hoping that as young as we are, we’ll keep getting better and keep improving the way we hit the ball.”
Sparks said he’s satisfied with the progress of Tabor’s improvement, but he admits some days seem better than others.
“When I came here three years ago, Tabor had finished last for three years in a row,” he said. “It’s certainly been a rebuilding project, and sometimes it’s a little slower than I had hoped, but I really am satisfied with how we’re progressing.”
Not wanting to make predictions about the outcome of the current season, Sparks said the team has set concrete goals.
“Our primary goal this year is to make it to the conference tournament,” he said. “To do that we’ll have to finish in the top five.”
In the six years the conference post season tournament has been in existence, Sparks said Tabor has failed to qualify a single time.
“I think we’d feel we had a fairly successful year if we would qualify and earn a spot,” he said. “Once you get to that conference tournament, you only have to win three straight and you’re in the regional tournament.
“Funny things can happen but you have to get there first.”
After beginning the season 3-1, including a win over Newman University, Tabor has dropped six straight and now stands at 3-7. But Sparks said optimism is still evident for each contest.
“We not only need to hit the ball this year, but we need to hit the ball well at clutch times and get timely hits,” Sparks said. “But I continue to see progress and with the core of our team being really young, I think that bodes well for us for the next couple of years.”