HCC BASEBALL TEAM LOOKS FOR REBOUND SEASON IN 2014; SEASON OPENER FRIDAY
Little did Hutchinson Community College baseball coach Ryan Schmidt know at the time, but what happened in the third at-bat of the 2013 season proved to be an ominous tone in his first season as the Blue Dragon skipper.
Staff ace Josh Lansangan was drilled in the arm with a batted ball and suffered a broken arm. Later in the game, the Blue Dragons lost top outfielder Christian Cox with a separated shoulder when he ran into the wall.
From that point, there were a lot of other injuries, numerous weather problems and a stretch where the Blue Dragons won just twice in 16 games and had a team batting average of .191 during that skid.
That all added up to a sub-par 22-30 record in 2013 and a two-game sweep by Coffeyville in the opening round of the Region VI Tournament.
"If we get four batters into this year without an injury, we will be way ahead of the game, said Schmidt, whose team opens the 2014 season this weekend at Rose State College in Midwest City, Okla.
Times for the three-game series will be 3 p.m. on Friday, 2 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday. All games will be single nine-inning games. There will be no video stream available for the series, but the HCC Twitter account @bluedragonsport will be providing updates throughout the weekend.
"The only thing I used last year for was motivation for this year," Schmidt said. "I think our coaching staff made a concerted effort to go out on the road and recruit, do our jobs and put us in position not to let that happen again. We are going to move forward and be better for going through that experience. We have a veteran team this year that should be able to handle adversity much better."
The 2014 Blue Dragons will have a veteran look in both the infield and outfield, but there will be plenty of youth on the mound this season. The Blue Dragons return five starting position players and one starting pitcher. Schmidt will have to retool the starting rotation and bullpen from a staff that posted a respectable 4.80 team ERA last season, but was put under the gun with a sluggish offense through the first two-thirds of the season.
"We are going to depend heavily on our position players to play good defense and help those young pitchers out," Schmidt said. "When you throw out a bunch of guys who have logged a bunch of innings in the field, the defense should be there and it's going to have to be a staple of this team."
The 2013 Blue Dragons were an offensively challenged group, hitting just .278 with a .393 slugging percentage and scoring 5.5 runs per game in 52 games last season. The Blue Dragons had 26 home runs, but only 84 doubles and nine triples. The Dragons stole 92 of 124 bases in 2013.
The 2014 Blue Dragons return leading home run hitter Dakota Shadoan (6-3, 220 lbs., Norman, Okla.), Matt Sutliffe (6-1, 215, Lawrence) and Quintin Crandall (5-10, 185, Nickerson). They also add some pop with Purdue transfer Bennett Oliver (6-2, 190, Topeka) and Nebraska transfer Matt Jones (6-7, 250, Gretna, Neb.).
"I think we have a very diverse lineup this year," Schmidt said. "We have a great mix of right-handed hitters and left-handed hitters. We have a good mix of guys who have the ability to drive the ball with guys whose strengths are bunting and running. When we put it all together it should work very efficiently."
Schmidt also thinks his everyday lineup will be fairly solid throughout the season. That was a luxury he didn't have in 2013 and he used multiple lineups last season.
"With our experience, we should be able to put together some innings by using our speed, using our short game and using our power game in producing runs. If we are able to do that, it will allow us to throw some young guys out on the mound and let them get acclimated to the college environment when you provide them some runs and some good defense."
Sophomore right-hander Kyle Simonds (6-4, 190, Grand Island, Neb.) will enter the season as the No. 1 starter in 2014 and will get the start in Friday's season opener at Rose State.
Simonds had an injury-plagued freshman season in posting a 2-4 record with a 5.29 ERA. He had a breakout game, though, against Cloud County where he went 7 2-3 innings where he struck out a season-high seven and allowed four hits and one unearned run.
"I'm excited for Kyle. He's put himself in position to have a really good year," Schmidt said. "He's built up his strength. His work has been tremendous. His leadership and everything he brings to the table is all you want your No. 1 to be about. We are going to put a big load on him and I'm sure he will be able to shoulder that."
Sophomore left hander Cameron Solko (6-2, 195, Lawrence) will start Game 2 on Saturday and freshman right-hander Isaac Lueth (6-6, 205, DeSoto) will start Game 3 on Sunday.
Last year, Solko made 10 total appearances and seven starts. He posted an 0-3 record with a 6.49 ERA in 34 2-3 innings pitched. Lueth was one of the hottest-recruited in-state players last season at 6-foot-6. Schmidt is excited about what Lueth will bring to the starting rotation this season.
Because the Blue Dragons haven't been able to get much time outside since returning from the Christmas break, Schmidt didn't want to look to far forward into the future about a set rotation and others who might be that fourth weekend starter when the Jayhawk West season starts in two weeks.
The Blue Dragons will have to replace closer Zach Eden, who took his eight saves and 64 strikeouts in 36 innings pitched to the University of Nebraska-Omaha. The 2013 Blue Dragons also were a bit inconsistent in getting games to Eden if the starters didn't go deep into games.
So far, Schmidt likes the look of his 2014 bullpen.
Sophomore lefty Austin Harms (6-0, 185, Overland Park) returns as one of the middle relievers. He was 2-2 last season with a 5.5 ERA. The middle relief corps will be bolstered by two freshmen in left-hander Tanner Raiburn (5-9, 175, Wichita) and Bobby Morretti (6-5, 210, Monroe, Conn.).
The set-up and closer roles will be handled by a group of four pitchers in freshman right-hander Tyler Coufal (6-0, 185, Lincoln, Neb.), freshman Anderson Vargas (6-3, 200, Manhattan, N.Y.), redshirt freshman Zach Wilson (LHP, 6-0, 200, Denton, Texas) and Shadoan, who will be a two-way player this season.
During those times that Shadoan isn't on the mound, he will be one of the Blue Dragon catchers. Last season Shadoan hit .193, but 17 of his 23 hits were nine doubles and eight home runs. Shadoan drove in 25 runs, which was third best in 2013 for HCC. As a catcher, Shadoan threw out 21.4 percent of basestealers.
"Dakota receives the ball very well and throws the ball very well," Schmidt said. "He's worked very hard on his blocking to keep the ball in front of him, which was a weakness. His weakness offensively was his batting average. He had great powers numbers and great walk numbers. He made some adjustments to his swing and he's become very tough to pitch to."
In addition to Shadoan as a backstop, freshman Jake Bublitz (6-2, 215 Thornton, Colo.) and transfer Tucker Chadd (5-9, 180, Wichita) will create a lot of depth behind the plate. Bublitz's brother pitches for the University of Nebraska. Chadd transferred from Orange Coast Community College and his under is Detroit Tigers' player David Chadd.
The 2014 infield has experience, albeit not at Hutchinson.
There could be a three player rotation a first base in 2014.
Oliver played at Purdue in 2012 and was a member of the Boilermakers' 2012 Big 10 championship team. He played in 13 games in 2013 and hit .227 with five RBIs. He was in six games last season at Purdue before a season-ending injury resulted in a medical redshirt. Oliver is an early commitment to Kent University and will hit likely in the No. 3 spot in the order.
Sutliffe was HCC's third-leading hitter last season with a .344 batting average and 42 hits. Sutliffe, who had eight doubles and a homer, drove in 26 runs. Sutliffe was an all-Jayhawk West player last season.
The third option is Nebraska transfer Matt Jones, who will also see outfield action early in the season as well.
"We are going to look really good in our uniforms at first base," Schmidt said.
Up the middle, freshman Jake Schleppenbach (5-10, 170, Lincoln, Neb.) is slated at second base, while interchangeable sophomores Jake Ek (5-10, 170, Columbus, Neb.) and Crandall will start at shortstop and third base, respectively.
(Ek and Crandall) "have a ton of experience and if one goes down, the other moves to that spot," Schmidt said. "It's kind of nice to have two shortstops playing on the left side of the infield. They can cover more ground together and work well together."
Crandall hit .304 with a home run and 29 RBIs. Ek hit .252, but had an on-base percentage of .349. He will likely hit No. 2 after 11 sacrifice bunts last season.
"Schleppenbach will lead off this year," Schmidt said. "He had a great fall. He had a very high on-base percentage and was a very dynamic player for us in getting innings going. He's worked hard on his short game. He will be able to run bases and create things with his speed."
The outfield depth took a little hit when sophomore Chris Pinne (5-10, 220 Prairie Village) was lost for an undermined amount of time with an injury after earning the starting job in left field. Last season Pinne .214 in only 28 at-bats.
Matt Jones and freshman Brock Hammit (6-3, 205, Nixa, Mo.) will likely fill in for him in left field while converted second baseman Gabe Wurth (5-10, 170 Valley, Neb.) earned the starting spot in center field and sophomore Jordan Schroer (6-1, 210, Lincoln, Neb) will be in right field.
Wurth hit .292 in 24 at-bats last season and stole 3 of 4 bases in his freshman season at HCC. He takes over for the fleet-footed Justin Harris, who played a solid center field in 2014. Schroer earned a starting spot last season in the second half of the year. He had the second-highest batting average at .368 with three homers and 10 RBIs.
"Gabe's asset out there is his speed to chase down balls," Schmidt said of Wurth. "We tried his as an experiment this fall and he can play out there. He was running down balls out there he shouldn't have.
"When our team got hot last year, Jordan was hot. He earned the regional start. He has good instincts and gets good jumps on the ball."
The Blue Dragons were supposed to open last weekend at home against Coffeyville, but last week's snowstorm wiped that out. Next weekend, the Dragons will travel to Mt. Pleasant, Texas for a four-game series at Northeast Texas.
HCC will finally open at Hobart-Detter Field on Feb. 26 when Northern Oklahoma-Tonkawa comes to Hutchinson for a single 3 p.m game. HCC then opens conference play with Garden City on March 1-2 at Hobart-Detter Field.