Optimism abounds for 2005 Bluejay baseball squad

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
This has turned into the year of the Bluejay in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference. Tabor already owns championships in football, volleyball, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.

Could the Bluejays add a conference crown in baseball this spring?

Tabor coach John Sparks thinks it’s possible.

“We have high expectations as a team,” the fourth-year coach said. “We have a number of goals this year with our No. 1 goal being making it to the KCAC tournament.

“We also want to have the first winning season here in a while (1995) and we feel like we can contend for a championship this year if we play solid, fundamental baseball.”

Sparks said his rebuilding plan is progressing at a pace that makes competing for the conference title within reach.

“We’ve had our frustrating times over the last three years, but we’re on track and we’ve improved steadily over that time,” he said. “We feel, both as a coaching staff and as a team, that this is going to be our best year yet.”

The Bluejays are building on last year’s 18-26 record-the most wins by a Tabor baseball team in nine years.

But the Bluejays started last season with a 16-11 mark, meaning they dropped 15 of their last 17 games.

“Inexperience was one aspect of our finish last year,” Sparks said. “We only had two seniors and two juniors on the team, so when we got into conference play, we kind of folded.

“We played real well out of conference, but in the KCAC you have to show up every day and be ready to play-and we didn’t do a very good job of that down the stretch last year.”

With 14 returning players, 10 freshman and four junior college transfers on the roster this year, Sparks thinks maturity and depth will prevent a finish like last season’s.

Sparks said the key for his team’s success will be pitching.

Heading the staff will be Casey Hillman, a Santa Rosa (Calif.) Community College transfer, and Andy Womack, who was 2-4 last season with an earned-run average of 5.7.

“They are our 1-2 guys,” Sparks said. “Those two guys will be the base of our pitching staff.”

Hillman has already thrown a no-hitter this season for the Bluejays.

Sparks expects Tyler McKim, a linebacker on this year’s KCAC champion football team, and Scott Wolf (2-6, 6.0 ERA) to step into his other two starting spots.

Also seeing time on the hill for the Bluejays will be four freshmen: Josh Letourneau, Topeka; Cooper Garbe, Owasso, Okla.; Kyal Johnston, Enid, Okla.; and Tristan Simmons, Benton.

“We have enough guys to cover for rainouts and things like that,” Sparks said. “Letourneau had a great fall, Garbe and Johnston should be effective in short-inning work and we hope Simmons will develop during the year.”

Sparks welcomes three returning All-KCAC players to the diamond in Grant Brubacher, Chance Miles and Layne Frick.

“Grant is incredibly athletic,” Sparks said. “He can make plays at shortstop that not a lot of other people can make. He’s a very savvy player that led us in most offensive categories last year.”

Brubacher, who hit .343 last season with three home runs, 48 hits and 21 runs batted in, is currently the starting point guard for the Bluejay basketball team after earning All-KCAC recognition this fall in soccer.

“He’s always been able to pretty much walk from sport to sport, so I think he’ll be fine,” Sparks added. “He’ll probably lead off for us when he gets back from basketball.”

Miles, a junior from Gillette, Wyo., returns to play both first base and designated hitter for Tabor. Last season, he hit .316 with three home runs, 42 hits and 35 RBI.

“We need a big year from Chance,” Sparks said. “He’s been a big part of things offensively the past couple years and has the potential to do even better than he has been.

“Chance has improved tremendously at first base,” he added. “He needs to be a guy who drives in runs for us.”

Frick (2-3, 2.4 ERA) is the third All-KCAC performer returning for Sparks.

“Layne did a real nice job closing for us last year,” Sparks said. “That was the first time he had done that anywhere and he’ll be back in that same role this year.

“I would expect he’ll be even more comfortable this year.”

Sparks said this year’s recruiting class is his best yet while at Tabor. Among those new recruits are four junior college players and 10 freshmen.

“We have a lot of experience returning and we have several quality transfers and freshmen that we’ve been able to bring in,” he said. “The newcomers have been able to jell with the rest of the team really well. So we feel, talent-wise, we’re certainly ahead of where we have been and our team chemistry is better than it’s been in the past three years.”

Sparks said this year team looks strong on defense.

“Our outfield certainly is the most experienced it’s been since I’ve been here,” he said.

In centerfield is Kevin Peterson, a transfer from American Rivers Community College in Sacramento, Calif.; in left field is Nick Green, a junior from Santa Rosa, Calif.; in right field is Jeremy Ball, a junior from Welda.

“Those guys are all pretty experienced, although I wouldn’t say they’re a bunch of burners,” he added. “But they read the ball pretty well and make good decisions.”

Working behind the plate for Tabor will be Josh Craig, a transfer from Mendicino (Calif.) Community College.

“He’s a guy who does a nice job defensively for us and he was here this fall, so he does a nice job with our pitchers,” Sparks said.

On the infield, second base will be manned by Jake Monhollon, a transfer from Barton County Community College, while younger brother Tanner, a freshman from Topeka, is at shortstop until Brubacher returns.

“Then we’ll make a decision about platooning or whatever,” Sparks said. “They both do a good job on defense.

“All our junior-college transfers were brought in to play and they’re all going to be big contributors this year.”

Third base belongs to Casey Hillman unless he’s on the pitching mound. If so, Tyson Bauerle, a sophomore from Nickerson, will take over.

Miles will patrol first base along with Brian Kimsey, a junior from Gold River, Calif., and Bauerle.

“We’re going to kind of feel that out and find our best combination,” Sparks said.

Although the team boasts just two seniors, Sparks said there’s more experience on the roster than it appears.

“We have a fairly large junior class, so I don’t look at us as being as young as we were last year,” he said. “A lot of our sophomores got a lot of time last year so we’re not as young as we look on paper.”

Sparks hopes off-season work will pay dividends for the Bluejays.

“The guys put in the best off season since I’ve been here,” he said. “They worked very hard and we can see improvements in a number of areas.

“We don’t necessarily have the most talented team in the conference, but we think when we do the little things, we can compete with anybody.”

To take the next step up the conference ladder, Sparks said a couple of things must happen.

“We need to get more consistent pitching and we need more offense from our 1-9 hitters, not just from a couple of guys at the top of the order,” he said. “We also have to play solid defense. Physical errors will happen, but we have to cut out the mental mistakes.

“Some of those just killed us last year.”

Sparks hopes his pitching staff will improve last season’s team ERA of 6.67.

“It’s tough to win when you have to average about eight runs a game,” Sparks said.

He said the Bluejays have identified several goals for the season.

“We want to make post-season play, we want to have a winning season and if we could make it to regionals, that would be great,” he said. “We have to have more consistent pitching and we need to come up with timely hitting and more offensive production this season.

“I think we’ll stick together as a team better this season,” he said. “We have a number of guys who understand the game better and what needs to be done to win both fundamentally and mentally.”

Early results find Tabor with a record of 6-4 after this weekend’s games with Northwestern College of Iowa.

“Defensively so far this year, we haven’t played especially well on the infield but we haven’t been able to take ground balls on our field yet,” Sparks said. “Having said that, I think that’s one area where we’ll really improve.”

Sparks said while the team has shown flashes of timely hitting in the early going it hasn’t reached its potential.

“What we have done well is to compete and execute offensively,” Sparks said. “I feel really good about this season and we’re really excited about it.

“I told the guys if we continue to get better each week-which I think we have the potential to do-come April, we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”

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