Winners of five out of six games back in September, the University of Jamestown baseball team hurtled toward winter workouts with plenty of fuel to the fire.
The defending Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament champion Jimmies will open the spring season this weekend with five games in Joplin, Missouri -- if Mother Nature plays nice. Jamestown has a pair of key figures back on the mound who helped lead to last year's 35 wins and a trip to the NAIA Opening Round and has added a few potential impact bats to an order anchored by a player who is projected to be one of the more dangerous sluggers in the GPAC this season.
After roughly six weeks of practice, it's time for UJ baseball.
"The fall went pretty well for us," said veteran UJ baseball coach Tom Hager, whose Jimmies picked up two wins over Valley City State and three over Viterbo (Wisconsin) in the fall. "By no means do we think that it was perfect, but we were able to see some different guys, develop some depth and, hopefully, some of that will carry over to the spring.
"Make no mistake about it, there are no excuses. It's time to play baseball and it's time to play baseball the right way."
The Jimmies are scheduled to open play Friday facing the Culver-Stockton (Missouri) Wildcats and the Columbia College (Missouri) Cougars. The Wildcats (0-3) have already had four games scrapped to weather this spring, while Columbia is rolling into Joplin at 7-2.
On Saturday, Jamestown squares off against the William Penn University (Iowa) Statesmen and the University of Saint Mary (Kansas) Spires. The Statesmen have logged 11 games and are entering the weekend at 8-3, while the Spires -- at 0-6 -- have been forced to cancel seven contests.
Hager said Jamestown will be facing an opponent to be determined on Sunday. February baseball in the middle of the country is all about making road trips count.
"There are several teams from the Midwest that are going to meet down in Joplin and all get a chance to get some games in," Hager explained. "We're just excited that, finally, we're going to get a chance to see how our team stacks up and take a look at the improvements that we've made since the fall."
Jamestown batted .272/.382/.467 as a team during its six fall games, outscoring the opposition 38-17. The lone slipup was a 4-2 loss at Mayville State.
Freshman pitcher Mitchell Dennis (14 1/3 IP, 4.91 ERA, 13 SO, three starts) and senior Andy Reed (11 IP, 2.45 ERA, 8 SO, two starts) logged the most work on the mound, while senior Aaron Pugh appeared in five of the six games.
Senior first baseman Lincoln Trujillo opened the fall with a bang, smashing a pair of home runs and collecting four RBIs in a 13-5 victory over Valley City State. A product of Cheyenne, Wyoming, Trujillo is slashing .389/.542/1.111 with four homers and nine RBIs in 18 at-bats.
Others who saw a dozen or more at-bats in the fall were: sophomore third baseman Kendall Yackley, junior designated hitter/first baseman Dylan Dudley, senior shortstop Grant Okawa, junior second baseman Ben Pedigo, senior center/right fielder Chase Hacker and sophomore catcher Dirk Eymundson.
Senior starting pitchers Kensaku Akiya and Dru Fitz are two major pieces back in the fray after both were unavailable in the fall. Akiya, from Kawasaki, Japan, went 7-0 in 12 starts last season, racking up 48 strikeouts and posting an ERA of 3.74 in 67 1/3 innings. Fitz, from Gresham, Oregon, went 6-2 in 10 starts, pitching 58 strikeouts in 61 2/3 frames with an ERA of 3.79.
Hager said junior transfers Luke Shekeryk, a 6-foot-4, 265-pound left-handed batter from Seattle, Washington, and Derek Almanaza, a 6-foot, 220-pound outfielder from Bow, Washington, are poised to impact the Jimmies' lineup this spring. The coach also sees potential from junior transfer Gavin Petterson, a right-handed pitcher from Soldotna, Alaska.
"We've added some nice pieces this spring," Hager said. "We'll have Kensaku and Dru back on the mound. We'll also have Gavin Petterson who will be a big piece to our bullpen, and then we have Derek Almanza and Luke Shekeryk who have a chance to hit in the middle of the lineup."
The Jimmies bested Concordia (Nebraska) 3-0 in the GPAC tournament title game last May in Yankton, South Dakota. The Bulldogs were picked by conference coaches to win the league this spring, with Jamestown chosen to finish second.
Kensaku and Hacker were selected second-team All-GPAC in 2018-19, while Reed and senior left fielder Matt Meraz (.222/.222/.333 in nine fall at-bats) were chosen All-GPAC honorable mention.
"We think that we've got a chance to be a really special team by the end of the season," Hager said. "But it's definitely going to be a work in progress and, hopefully, this trip tells us where we stand and what we need to work on."
Great Plains Athletic Conference
2020 Baseball Preseason Coaches' Poll
(First-place votes in parenthesis)
1. Concordia University, Neb. (10) 100
2. University of Jamestown (1) 89
3. Midland University, Neb. 67
4. Northwestern College, Iowa 66
5. Morningside College, Iowa 65
6. Mount Marty College, S.D. 58
7. Dakota Wesleyan University, S.D. 55
8. Doane University, Neb. 46
9. Briar Cliff University, Iowa 27
10. Hastings College, Neb. 22
11. Dordt University, Iowa 10