Bluejay baseball team opens season with high expectations

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
If the 2006 Tabor College baseball team was an airplane, they’d fly into town as a Stealth bomber.

The Bluejays are flying undetected on the radar of their KCAC opponents despite the school’s first post-season appearance in 2005.

Pollsters tabbed the Bluejays to finish in the lower half of the KCAC race even though they return the conference’s second-best hitting team (.315 average) and 15 returning players.

“I think that finish gave us some confidence and took us to the next level as far as the progression of our program,” said John Sparks, in his fifth year as coach. “It gave us confidence and let us know we belonged, especially knocking out the defending champions (Friends) and losing two one-run games.

“We know just how close we were to being a title team.”

Although Tabor concluded last season with a 22-29 season record and an 8-16 mark in KCAC play, the Bluejays seem poised to catapult themselves to the top of the conference this spring.

The Bluejays return most of last season’s team that set records for runs scored, hits and runs batted in.

“Offensively, we have just about everyone back with the exception of Grant (Brubacher),” Sparks said. “We should be able to hit the ball effectively, but one of our goals is to break a lot of the records we set last year.”

If those records are to be broken, Kevin Peterson likely will be in the middle of the mix.

Peterson earned first-team All-KCAC honors last year when he led the conference in hitting (.430) while cranking out 11 home runs and 65 base hits and driving in 60 runs.

“He had probably one of the best offensive years anyone has ever had at Tabor College,” Sparks said.

Earning second team accolades was Casey Hillman, who will bat cleanup this season. A pitcher and third baseman, Hillman hit .387 with 63 hits and drove in 45 runs.

“He has great hands at the plate and hit the ball as well as anyone for us this fall,” Sparks said. “We think he’ll have a great season for us.”

Honorable mention All-KCAC honors went to Chance Miles (first base and designated hitter, .304) , Brian Kimsey (first base and DH, .293), Josh LeTourneau (pitcher) and Nick Green (left field and second base, .301).

“This will be Chance’s fourth year with us and he’s been a big contributor the first three,” Sparks said. “If he can make the adjustment to hit to the opposite field, he and Brian (Kimsey) can be, to some degree, the key to our offensive success in the five and six spots.

“If they hit well, there really isn’t any place for pitchers to hide.

“Green (.505 on-base percentage) will play left and get some time at second base,” he said. “Offensively, we need Nick on the field.”

LeTourneau returns after posting a 3.53 earned-run average, allowing 17 earned runs in 332/3 innings.

“Josh did a great job in middle relief last year,” Sparks said. “He has the mentality that when he comes in, nothing shakes him up.”

Sparks will use Josh Craig (.276) behind the plate.

“A year of experience has really helped Josh,” Sparks said. “He continues to excel in his role as a team leader and field general behind the plate.”

Tyson Bauerle (.295) will share time at third base with Hillman.

Shortstop will be filled by newcomer J.D. Poplin, who hit .275 with Solano College in 2005, with 11 doubles and two home runs.

“He’s a gritty player and as long as he can make the routine play, we’ll be all right,” Sparks said.

Two players who will be vital to Tabor’s chances are seniors Jeremy Ball (.286) and Casey Cooper (.204).

“They’re great team guys and we’re so happy to have them both,” he said. “Casey will be our sixth man, to use basketball terminology. He’ll be our No. 2 catcher and our No. 4 outfielder. So he’ll play a lot.

“Jeremy will start in right field and finally seems healthy,” he added. “He’s the fastest guy on our team.”

Tanner Monhollon (.235) will also push for playing time along with freshmen Eric LeCalsi, Alex Vergara (Ohlone College, .332) and Martin Morales (Marfa, Texas, .511).

Tabor can score runs, but whether they can stop the opposition from doing the same is the biggest question.

Sparks thinks this year’s team has that ability.

“We’ve been working on our defense a lot,” he said of his team, which allowed 305 runs, but only 211 earned runs in 2005. “One of our goals is to average just one error per game. If we do that, we’ll stand a good chance of winning a lot of games.”

Tabor’s pitching staff lost second team All-KCAC pick Andy Womack, who transferred to Wichita State, but Sparks thinks his recruiting efforts addressed that issue.

“We have the talent,” Sparks said of his staff. “I think this will be our deepest pitching staff, but some of them are freshmen and still need experience.

“Our pitching and defensive execution will be critical.”

Hillman headlines the staff, returning after last season’s 7-6 record and 3.46 ERA. He allowed 79 hits in 81 innings while striking out 51.

Looking to take the No. 2 starting spot will be Jeremy Sneed, who tossed seven complete games last year and recorded a glossy 2.85 ERA at Mendocino College.

Others pushing for time on the hill include Tyler McKim (5.94 ERA), Cooper Garbe (4.71 ERA) along with newcomers Michael Menges (6-0, 0.95 ERA at Rockwall High in Texas), and Peabody native Phil Unruh (3.46 ERA at Hesston College).

Sparks knows the leadership of nine seniors will be crucial to Tabor’s championship aspirations.

“Their preparation has been much better this year,” he said. “I believe our guys can win and my players believe that as well. We’re a confident bunch.”

Sparks said Tabor’s ability to field the baseball could go a long ways in preserving a sometimes fragile pitching staff.

“We need to be consistent and not give up free runs,” he said. “We can’t walk people or hit them and we need to challenge their hitters.

“It’s been said that each error in baseball causes your pitcher to throw 12 to 13 more pitches,” he said. “We’ll be able to score, but we have to make the other team earn their runs.”

Tabor opens the season in Texas on Feb. 9, 10 and 11.

“We’re so far ahead of last year, it’s not funny,” Sparks said of the unseasonably mild weather. “This can be the year we challenge for the conference title.”

Tabor will play its initial home game Feb. 15 against Central Christian College.

“Our early schedule could be really successful, and if we take care of business, we think it’ll carry over into the conference,” Sparks said. “We hope that will lead to better interest in baseball in Hillsboro.

“There’s no admission, but we know we have to earn (spectators) and give people something they want to come out and watch.

“Our guys feel like they have something to prove,” he added. “We were so close in so many ways last year and I think we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulders.”

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