Take me out to the ballgame

From left, Jordon Helm, Cooper Turpin, Jack Ebright and Nathan Hungate warm up in pitching practice on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. The Panthers’ season begins Sunday at 1 pm and Monday at noon and will play Northeast Nebraska Community College (3-5). 

ROBERT MAGOBET

The 2020 baseball season is finally upon the Panthers of Neosho County Community College.

After a 31-27 season last year that ended with a 8-0 loss to Butler Community College in the first round of the Region 6 playoffs, 33rd-year head baseball coach Steve Murry, along with assistant Mike Gilner and first-year assistant Josh Merrill, has been methodically managing new and returning players in an effort to highlight consistent, top-notch performances for the 2020 baseball season.

While women take notice of the long ball, baseball will always start and end with pitching. Murry will dole out four Division I-caliber players for this year’s pitching staff, one he deems likely his second greatest lineup in his three-plus decades of eying top talent. 

Those pitchers include sophomore Cam Blazek, a 6’3” right-handed pitcher who, after a 7-2 record with 54 strikeouts and a 3.71 ERA for NCCC, signed to New Mexico State and earned All-Conference Honorable Mention for the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference a year ago. Josh Flack, a 6’1” RHP who racked up 49 strikeouts in 11 games as a weekend starter in 2019, is signed, sealed and delivered to Kansas State University after this year. Additionally, the 6’3” sophomore Ben Des Rosiers, who last year had a 5-3 record with 69 strikeouts and earned Academic All-America, has several D-I offers but is still uncommitted. And Taylor Parrett, a 6-foot freshman RHP out of Fargo, ND, is just as talented as the top three pitchers on the team, according to Murry.

“We’re very, very happy with our four starters,” Murry said. “Where we could possibility run into trouble, and it is a concern for me, is the bullpen, and numbers where guys can go out and shut somebody down for two to three innings, so we’re going to have to piece together the backend.”

On the top of the list to help the bullpen for weekday games is sophomore Kyler Hancock, a 5’10” RHP who registered a 3-1 record with 29 strikeouts in 2019. Tyler McQuinn, a 5’6” freshman right-handed pitcher out of Overland Park, will also contribute. And 6’5” sophomore Chase Curtis, an Academic All-American pitcher, 6’2” freshman RHP Brett Wiemers from Pittsburg, 6-foot RHP Owen Chaffin out of Overland Park, 6-foot sophomore RHP Nathan Hungate, who last season tallied seven strikeouts in 5 and 2/3 innings, as well as 6-foot right-handed freshman pitcher Jack Ebright from Wichita, will all be among the top relief pitchers for NCCC.

From pitching to fielding, starting at first base will be 6-foot freshman Mason Lundgrin out of Salina who will hit with power, but will need to develop his fielding skills. Backing up Lundgrin will be 6’5” freshman Luke Wolgamott from Parsons who has the ability to put the ball in play, but will need to speed up his game and work on his defensive skills.

At second base was supposed to be 6-foot sophomore Daegan Brady, who last season hit .280 with four home runs and 21 RBI, but was lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery, and will redshirt this year and return next season. With a committee approach, 6’1” sophomore Andrew Brautman, who last season played third base and stroked seven home runs, 39 RBI with a .342 average earning All-Conference Honorable Mention honors, will split time at second base with Chase Curtis, a 6’5” player who posted nine RBI and a .1000 fielding percentage and earned Academic All-America honors.

Every day starters Brautman and Curtis will also split time in the outfield until one of them takes over second base in an effort to figure out their best positions.

Shortstop will feature 5’11” freshman Vinny Esparza out of Kansas City, Kan., who is a defensive savant. Offensively, however, Esparza will need to work on hitting fundamentals, but Murry said he intends to have him play small ball.

Luke Burk, a 6’1” freshman from Galena, Mo., will play third base. Burk has the talent to be one of the better hitters on the team, as he just needs more repetitions to fully display his talents.

Connor Jeffers, a 5’10” sophomore who last season hit six extra-base hits as well as posted a .393 on-base percentage, will split time as catcher with 6’1” freshman Austin Arceneaux. Both of these players will need to improve on both sides of the field.

In center field will be 5’11” sophomore Khalil Thrasher, who last season batted .321 with 20 extra-base hits and 36 RBI and earned All-Conference Honorable Mention. Thrasher is a steady defensive presence at center.

The right fielder will be 6’1” sophomore Chaseton Wylie, who a year ago had a .220 average with eight doubles and 12 RBI, who has raw talent. If Wylie can display his skill set in live games, he has the potential to enter the MLB draft, Murry said.

As designated hitter, transfer Drew Miller, a 6’2” freshman out of Pryor, Okla., will be big for NCCC. He bats left-handed and may be the best overall hitter on the team.

Out of this group, Murry said he will look to Thrasher and Brautman to galvanize the young team with their play and their leadership abilities.

“We expect big things from those guys, and they’re in their second year starting,” Murry continued. “And honestly, they are way more comfortable this year than they were last year, so we’re hoping they can lead this young hitters’ group into some success.”

Enjoying success in moments last season were All-Conference players Brady Garrison and Cruz Aranda. Aranda, who last season leveled four homeruns, 28 RBI with a .282 average, has moved on to start at shortstop at D-I school Campbell University in North Carolina, while Garrison, who belted 12 home runs, 62 RBI with a .371 for the Panthers in 2019, starts at catcher for Marshall University in West Virginia.

Still, accumulating and losing talent is one thing, but to be able to use this talent to manifest results is an entirely different situation. Last season, NCCC was just four games over .500, but prior to that, Murry managed teams that won at least 20 games over .500 for five straight seasons.

Murry is eyeing his pitching to be the reason NCCC hits that mark this season once more.

“I feel like this team is ran on its starting pitchers. Our starting pitching is our number one thing,” he said. “Other than that, we have nine dudes that are going to play really, really hard every single game and if we can get five of those to hit each game, we’ll be fine, but this team’s success will be based on the starting pitchers going deep into games and doing their job, and I literally have no doubt that they’ll be able to do it.”

More so recently as opposed to the five seasons prior to last year, there was a wisp of doubt that NCCC could be a team that could put consistent, long win streaks together. Murry said he was ambivalent about his team last season.

“I think last year – and I don’t want to cut down any kids because maybe it’s my fault – I felt like we had a lot of selfish people. It was all about what they could accomplish and that’s just not the way you win a baseball game. It’s not about a bunch of individual performances; one guy can’t carry you,” Murry said. “We weren’t mentally tough. If we were ahead, we’d beat you. If we were behind, we’d lose. And if we were even, we’d probably lose that, too. And I think what you need is just a team that doesn’t quit. From what I’ve seen in this group, they just keep plugging away and doing their job and getting their work done on a daily basis.”

That was evident in the fall SHOtime series, invented by Murry to develop respect and trust amongst players, as well as practice settings. From the SHOtime series, Murry said that in practice Blazek has overcome demons from last season, which include runners in scoring position crossing the plate. In specific practice instances, batters have been able to hit off of Blazek, but the sophomore recently showed he can persevere and leave runners stranded.

Many of those times last season were due to three freshmen starting pitchers on the staff. Blazek will be among the three sophomores this year to trot out experience, which will be paramount in winning 40 games and going deep in the playoffs, other goals of Murry’s.

The road to winning those games starts this Sunday at 1 pm and Monday at noon, when NCCC will play Northeast Nebraska Community College (3-5).

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