The Clarke College baseball team will open its 2009 campaign in Tennessee with five games in three days beginning Friday with a twin bill against NAIA power Union University in Jackson.
The Crusaders will face Bethel College, a team program that won over 30 games last year, on Saturday and Sunday in McKenzie. Clarke and Bethel will play a doubleheader on Saturday and one nine-inning game on Sunday. The first pitch will be at noon on all three dates.
"This is a trip we took last year and we will make again next year," said third-year head coach Chad Harris. "It's a chance to get outside, face some good competition, and to see what some weaknesses are that we need to focus on as we prepare for conference play. The forecast is calling for warm weather and we are excited to get on the field."
One of those weaknesses, according to Harris, will be at the plate. The Crusaders only have one hitter returning who had an average over the .300 mark last season. Senior Pete Lister (Barry, Ill.) hit .315 with six home runs in the 2008 season. Harris' squad, which hit a dismal .239 as a team one year ago, also stranded 300 runners on base last season and that has to change for the Crusaders to see success in 2009.
Several new faces in the line-up this season should help the Crusaders' cause when on offense. Juniors Dean Molitor (Carroll, Iowa), Michael Jimenez (Cidra, Puerto Rico), and Jared Krasselt (Chili, Wis.) are proven guys at the junior college level and Harris expects to see a lot of production when these guys are at the plate.
"The timing of our hits is key," said Harris. "Can we advance runners to scoring position and then can we get the timely hit and drive those guys in? That is what remains to be seen."
A bright spot is the pitching staff, which Harris expects to be the team's strongest area. Leading the way for the 2009 Crusaders pitching staff is 6-3 senior lefty Kirk Garrison (Moline, Ill). Garrison posted a 4.88 era last year, but according to Harris, Garrison's numbers from 2008 don't reflect what he is capable of.
"I expect Garrison's numbers to be much improved for his senior season now that we have an improved defense behind him and hopefully more run support. He's been working hard and appears to be in better shape than last year. On the mound, he's a coach's dream. He's going to give you a chance every time out. Even if he doesn't have his best stuff, he still knows how to pitch and compete."
Also expected to contribute greatly on the mound this season are seniors Chris Magarian (St. Catherines, Ontario) and Dan Spain (Delmar, Iowa), and sophomores, lefty Justin Haas (Cabot, Ark.) and righty Mike Schermer (Morongo Valley, Calif). Magarian, Haas, and Schermer are penciled in to see a lot of time out of the bullpen while Spain's role remains up in the air at the moment.
"Chris is so great out of the pen because the kid throws strikes. Spain will be logging time at shortstop so we haven't quite decided if we will start him or use him relief, but either way, I feel like he will contribute in a big way with his arm," said Harris.
Other pitchers for the Crusaders, unproven to date at the college level, are freshmen righties Chris Brewer (Sacramento, Calif.) and Jake Moser (Spring Creek, Nev.), and freshman lefty Brian Cross (Bloomington, Ill).
"These young guys are going to see a lot of mound time as freshmen and I think they could turn into something very special if they develop the way I think they can and if they put in the work and time required. Lots of guys have exceptional talent but they aren't willing to work to develop what they have. All three of these freshmen have live arms and their ceiling is truly up to them. They could be anchors to our staff the next three and a half years if they choose to. I've never had three freshmen pitchers with as much potential as these three."
Behind the plate, the Crusaders are much improved with the addition of Krasselt and returning junior J.D. Judd (Spring Creek, Nev.). Both players are expected to see time in the field as well, with Judd playing some third base and Krasselt spending some time at shortstop when Spain is pitching.
"It's obvious where improvements were needed, but at the same time, I don't really like to compare teams. This year's squad is almost a complete overhaul from where we were a year ago. We've added a lot of new faces and our young guys from last year who chose to stick around have matured a lot," said Harris. "Our talent is better but our success depends on more than talent. The question is, ‘How bad do they really want it?'"
After returning from this weekend's series, the Crusaders will take a week-and-a-half away from the road before boarding the bus again, this time for five games in Branson, Mo., where they will face host College of the Ozarks and Culver-Stockton College Feb. 20 through Feb. 22.