Sophomore core joins newcomers for 2015 season

JOHN GIFFIN

Sports editor

With a core of returning sophomores and key newcomers, the Neosho County Community College baseball team is preparing for a return trip to the National Junior College Athletic Association Div. 1 World Series.

After reaching the NJCAA Div. 1 World Series in 2012 and 2013, the 2014 Panther baseball team fell short of reaching the Region VI Tournament at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium in Wichita. 

The Panthers ended the season in the opening round of the Region VI playoffs with a loss to Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference West opponent Seward County Community College at Hudson Field.

“We’re rolling along at No. 4 in the country,” Panther Head Coach Steve Murry said. “We end up winning 40 games, which is a bench mark for a great team, but the end of the year left the worst taste in all of our mouths. We just folded at the end.”

Murry and the Panthers have a chance to begin to get a minty fresh feeling back starting Wednesday with a season opening double-header at Ottawa University junior varsity beginning at 1 p.m.. Over the Valentine’s Day weekend, the Panthers will play two double-headers against Brown Mackie College at Hudson Field Saturday and Sunday. Both double-headers begin at 1 p.m.

With the goal of reaching the World Series, which is the goal every year, Neosho was picked to finish fourth in the Jayhawk East. With the young squad, Murry said it may take some time for the Panthers to find their identity.  

“I think we will start slow and work our way up,” Murry said. “I think it’s going to take some of our freshmen some time to adjust. I think there is some talent there. They just have to play like it. That’s been the knock on this team since the first day of practice, is our mental focus. I don’t know how mentally tough we are. Until we run into some adversity we’re not going to know how mentally tough we are.”

The young squad is similar to the 2012 team that ran through Wichita and made the trip to Grand Junction, Colo., Murry said.

“This team reminds me of three years ago’s team,” he said. “I’m not sure we belonged at the World Series but we played really well at the end. This team reminds me of that team. (We) may not be the most talented team in the conference, but (we) have the best attitude in the conference.”

Three starters return to the Panther pitching staff as well as a catcher. 

All-Jayhawk Conference East honorable mention Matt Slauter (RHP), second team hurler Shane Hummel (RHP) and southpaw Casey Quinlan return to the pitching rotation. Hummel will not see immediate action due to injury. 

“He had a blood clot at the end of last year,” Murry said. “He’s still recovering from that. We’ll get him back somewhere near mid-March.”

Sophomore Brady Childs will start at catcher for the Panthers. 

At the plate and in the field, Murry is looking to All-Jayhawk East first team selection outfielder Tyler Sutherland and second team outfielder Spencer Ibarra for leadership. The two sophomores are serving as team captains. Ibarra played in right field last season and moves over to centerfield this season. Sutherland will remain in left field.

Transferring from Allen County Community College is shortstop turned second baseman Levi Ashmore. The sophomore was named All-Jayhawk East honorable mention shortstop in his freshman season at Allen.

“We’ve got a good nucleus to start the season with,” Murry said.

Several newcomers will be called upon to fill key roles for the Panthers. Two pitchers Murry is looking to contribute immediately are right handers Tyler Mitzel and Trent Latta. 

“They are both going to be in our weekend rotation,” Murry said. “Both of them are wild cards right now. We don’t know how they’ll react. We’re going to count heavily on those guys.”

Weekday newcomer pitchers include sophomore Jeremy Manzer (LHP), who is in his third year at Neosho after sitting out last year due to injury, and freshman Josh Willis (LHP).

Rounding out the outfield will be  freshman Evan Bourn in rightfield.

“He’s a very, very talented kid,” Murry said, “but, he doesn’t know that yet. He can be a mainstay and contribute.”

At the corners will be freshmen Ryan “Skip” Skalnik and Jonah Bride. The duo will rotate between first and third base. 

“They’re both going to be in the lineup on an everyday basis,” Murry said. “Both have the chance to contribute a lot.”

Sophomore Trever Burkdoll will move from backup to starting shortstop.

“He may be the best defensive player in the conference,” Murry said. “If his offense goes the way it can, we’ll be really good there, too.”

Freshman Darian Abram is the front runner for the designated hitter position. Chad Thomas and Bradley Bullock will also get bats at DH.

Seeing time out the bullpen will be Humboldt’s Nathan Whitcomb (RHP), Lucas Milner (RHP/INF) and Easton Barnes (RHP). Bride and Bourn will also fill in as relievers.

“We don’t have overpowering stuff on the mound,” Murry said, “but we have some guys that we think can locate and command their stuff. For them to be successful they’re going to have to do that.”

Wednesday’s trip to Ottawa will be the first time this school year the Panthers will play someone other than themselves. Neosho plays a lot of intrasquad games in the fall, but does not face other schools.

“Lining up against another team, we haven’t done it yet,” Murry said, “That’s my personal belief. Baseball is baseball. Doesn’t matter if you’re playing your little brother or little sister or you’re playing the New York Yankees, you’re still seeing a ball. You’re still seeing a bat or a glove and if you can do it, you can do it.”

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