The Western Nebraska Community College baseball team is out to repeat as Empire Conference champions as they open the season this weekend in Garden City Community College.
WNCC head coach Mike Jones said there is plenty of optimism for a successful season with the talent that returns, including the Cougars top three starting pitchers.
“I think there is excitement around the team. Last year’s group was an outstanding group of people,” Jones said. “Winning the Empire Conference was a big step in helping our program grow. With this year’s team, I don’t think there is any added pressure. It is the same pressure that has been there in the past. We will take it one day and one game at a time and see who has the better team in May.”
These early games are a means for the team to just get on the field. The baseball team has been using creative ways to practice the last month because of the snowy weather, including using Cougar Palace, throwing on non-snow areas of the college, and the Oregon Trail Park open area.
“I think the team is excited to get on the road, put on the uniforms, and get on the field and play. From a coach’s point of view, we aren’t nearly ready physically. But this weekend will help us get better,” Jones said. “Whether we had a million practices on the field or not, it is not going to matter. We need to go out and play and see the speed of the game, make some mistakes and learn from them, and just get going.”
The early February games are just that, a way to get in the baseball routine of a contest. This year’s team has a lot of potential to earn back-to-back Empire Conference championships.
Jones is hoping the outlook for the team is for a sunny forecast. On paper it should be with 11 players that saw action either last year or the year before.
The one place that has plenty of experience is pitching with three of the four starters back from a year ago.
“We have some big guys back that pitched a lot for us a year ago, and we even have ones that weren’t in our starting rotation,” he said. “You have Alex Oehme, Claude Bova, and Jacob Pekol were starters for us a year ago and threw a lot for us as freshman and they only will be better this year. We also have Jonathan Bermudez, who sat out last year with an injury and he has experience at the college level. Then you got Brian Slaymaker who pitched a ton for us and he has experience. We definitely have experience on the mound. We will play good defense behind these guys and we will have to get creative in ways to score runs.”
Pekol was the leader on the team, finishing with an earned run average of 3.159. Pekol was 5-4 a year ago with one save. Oehme finished with a 3-5-1 record and a 3.086 ERA while Bova had a 4.218 ERA with a 6-5 record. All three guys led the team in strikeouts. Bova fanned 68 batters followed by Pekol with 65, and Oehme with 4.086.
As much as the pitching should be improved, the position players also will have depth. The Cougars return five position players that saw plenty of action a year ago. Leading the list of returners are local players Cooper Buchhammer of Scottsbluff and Esai Hernandez of Gering.
Other returners include Cole Williams of Parker, Colorado, Brandan Maher of Westminster, Colorado, and Tyler Shubert of Windsor, Colorado.
Other returners back from a year ago are Blake Slaymaker of Johnstown, Colorado, and Nathanael Andresen of Gilbert, Arizona.
The Cougars also have the services of two transfers. They include Tyler Olson from Olathe, Kansas, and Tommy McRill of Parker, Colorado.
Jones sees several newcomers as contributing this season.
“Tyler Olson will be a newcomer that should get a lot of at bats for us and be an offensive guy,” he said. “Mitch Lightbody will get a lot of innings for us and should contribute to us offensively as well. Tommy McGill will see a lot of time at first base.”
Then there are others that will be role players and that is the key in having a good season.
“It is a full team game and everybody needs to contribute and find out how they can help the team, and help the team be successful,” Jones said. “There are so many ways to help out with this baseball team without being the starting pitcher or the star offensive player. It will be a process but I think guys understand where they are at and what they need to do.”
The rest of the active roster includes Zach Berg of Parker, Colorado; Braden Lofink of Scottsbluff; Andres Garcia of Milliken, Colorado; Arnoldo Malto-Garcia of Brush, Colorado; Brandon Rollinson of Ft. Collins, Colorado; Kale Litzelman of Hotchkiss, Colorado; Welinton Mariano of Miami; Brevin Book of Gunnison, Colorado; Devin Deboer of Littleton, Colorado; Nate Kolb of Surrey, British Columbia; Harrison Yates of Laramie, Wyoming; Hunter Parker of Centennial, Colorado; and Brevin Owen of Falcon, Colorado.
Jones doesn’t know what kind of offensive team it will be this season, whether it will be a power team or a base-hitting team. What he wants is just a good hitting team.
“Getting guys on base will generate scoring opportunities, then it comes down to getting big hits with guys on base,” he said. “We have seen it time and time again from our guys that they understand the situation and they come up big in the clutch when we need it and that is what we need. Hopefully, that is what we can do again this year.”
Nothing is out of the realm this season. Jones believes this team can surprise some people.
“I really hope we are just an overall good team,” he said. “I know when you look at it on paper, pitching and our defense is what stands out, but offensively we might surprise some people. We just might be a very good offensive team unit and find ways to score runs and not rely on just one or two guys and able to do it all the way through the lineup.
2018 Baseball Schedule
(Schedule subject to change)
11-12 — @ Garden City Community College; 17-18 – HOME vs. Miles Community College; 23 — @ Northeastern Junior College; 24-25 — @ Barton Community College.
3-4 — @ Lamar Community College; 7 – HOME vs. Northeastern Junior College; 10-11 — @ Otero Junior College; 13-14 — @ South Mountain in Phoenix; 15 — @ Phoenix College in Arizona; 16 – @ GateWay Community College in Mesa, Arizona; 16 — @ Phoenix College in Arizona; 17 — @ Mesa Community College in Mesa, Arizona; 24-25 – HOME vs. Trinidad State Junior College; 27 — @ McCook Community College; 30-31 – HOME vs. Lamar Community College.
7-8 — @ Trinidad State Junior College; 11 — @ McCook Community College; 14-15 – HOME vs. Otero Junior College; 19 — @ Northeastern Junior College; 22 – HOME vs. Colorado State Club; 25 – HOME vs. Northeastern Junior College; 28-29 – HOME vs. McCook Community College.
4-6 — @ Miles Community College.