University of Jamestown baseball coach Tom Hager is no stranger to the inspirational one-liner. Every coach worth his or her salt owns at least a half dozen.
"As his famous quote goes, 'A little bit better every day from everyone will make the team better,'" explained UJ senior shortstop Grant Okawa. "Just one day at a time, getting better and working towards our final goal of the national tournament."
The journey for Okawa, Hager and the rest of the Jimmies begins tomorrow, Sept. 11. Jamestown opens the NAIA fall baseball season at Jack Brown Stadium hosting rival Valley City State University in a single, nine-inning contest beginning at 5:30 p.m. Weather permitting.
The Jimmies are coming off a 35-18 season that ended last May with a Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament championship and a trip to the NAIA Opening Round in Santa Barbara, California. The Jimmies lost a bevy of senior talent, per usual, but will look to rebuild around a returning senior core of five everyday starters, including Okawa.
Second team All-GPAC outfielder Chase Hacker (.273/.416/.475) returns after belting 16 extra-base hits and drawing 30 walks last spring, as does fellow senior outfielder Matt Meraz (.325/.408/.490), senior designated hitter Lincoln Trujillo (.278/.357/.505) and senior second baseman Jared Bentley (.188/.297/.241). UJ will look to fill holes at first, third and center, while possibly promoting 2018-19 backup catcher, sophomore Dirk Eymundson (.250/.400/.250), to the primary role.
"It's a new year, but our goal is to just go out and play Jimmie baseball the way that we do it," Hager said. "We asked all of our returning players to spend the summer getting better. We feel like a lot of them did that."
Returners Ben Pedigo and Braxton Hewitt, a Carrington product, will compete for time at second with Bentley, while sophomore Kendall Yackley appears poised to take over at third for departed all-conference brother Jaden Yackley. The versatile Hewitt might also be found battling for time behind the plate, along with sophomore Connor Morman (Ventura College, Calif.) and junior Tanner Shepard (Itasca Community College, Minn.).
Trujillo and junior transfer Dylan Dudley (Mt. Hood Community College, Ore.) are Hager's early picks at first base, while junior transfer Michael Asahara (Everett Community College) and sophomore Nolan Turin will compete for time in the middle infield. Outfielders include returning senior Nick Wrigg and junior college transfers Brian Rice (Mt. Hood CC) and Taylor Cullen (Santa Rose Junior College, Calif.).
"Every year, we know we gotta have new guys step up," Hager said. "We've got some new players that are talented and have been learning our system, and now they need to step up and perform for us."
"We've got a big, athletic group coming in," added Okawa, who batted .336/.415/.452 and boasted a .932 fielding percentage at short for the Jimmies last season. "They're all looking good. They're really meshing with the team and I just can't wait to see how the guys perform together."
The Jimmies' pitching staff returns seniors Austin Pesicka (4-2, 2.30), Andrew Reed (3-1, 2.03) and Aaron Pugh. A fifth-year senior from Boissevain, Manitoba, Pugh's experience will be called on to help guide a largely new staff.
"Try and lead by example and hopefully the younger guys follow," Pugh said. "Yeah, we've got a lot of spots to fill, but we've got guys to fill it. So we're just going to put them out there, let them perform and keep winning games."
Hager said Pedigo, Yackley, Hacker and Trujillo should all see time on the mound, as well as Dylan Haney, a senior from Brandon, Manitoba, who also suits up for UJ hockey. Freshman Trenton Smith, redshirt freshman Mitchell Dennis, transfer Lane Gerber and returner Cameron Jenkins are also likely to work themselves into the pitching mix.
"We've got a lot of guys on the mound that we're going to be looking to get contributions for us," Hager said. "We're hoping that all of those guys get a chance to get out there, throw strikes and get some quality outs for us."
Jamestown swept through the GPAC conference tournament last spring, topping Concordia (Neb.) 3-0 in the title game in Yankton, S.D., but went 0-2 at the NAIA Opening Round tournament in Southern California.
"We were a little disappointed with how things went out in California, and that's been a sour taste in our mouth," Hager said. "It's what drives our coaching staff and our players to get better."
The Jimmies' fall schedule includes eight games and will conclude Sept. 29 against Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisc. The Jimmies also host Mayville State on Sept. 24 at 6 p.m.
"Right now we've got a lot of young guys," Pugh said. "So it's getting the team used to each other -- having fun, get some wins and kinda pave a path to the spring."