Baseball Bobcats look forward to home dates in 2011

Written By: Shawn Wansley
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Date Submitted: 2011-01-31 11:40:49

 By Shawn Wansley

JCJC Sports Information Director

ELLISVILLE – What a difference a year makes.

In 2010, the Jones County Junior College Bobcats were preparing to play all of their baseball games away from campus due to the ongoing construction of a new stadium. JCJC would play the majority of its home games some 90 miles away at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson, along with a few at Milton Wheeler Field on the campus of William Carey University in Hattiesburg.

But this year all the Bobcats will have to do is walk across the street to their brand new, $2.8 million Community Bank Park.

“We are thrilled with the stadium,” said third-year head coach Christian Ostrander. “That facility is great. We are so thankful to (JCJC school president) Dr. (Jesse) Smith and the administration and the Board of Trustees for making this happen. We know how blessed we are and we talk about it everyday as coaches and say, ‘Man, look at this.’ It’s truly unbelievable.

“We know it’s going to help this program tremendously. It’s something to be very proud of, not only here on campus, but with the community, as well.  I think it will be a magnet. I hope it makes these kids around the community say, ‘You know, I really want to play there one day.’”

JCJC will christen the stadium, which has 520 chairback seats directly behind home plate and bleachers along the first and third base lines, at 2 p.m. on Feb. 9 against Baton Rouge Community College (La.).

Despite the hardship of being on the road all season, last year’s Bobcats enjoyed enormous success.

JCJC posted a 38-12 record, captured its first-ever MACJC South Division crown, won their opening round state tournament playoff series and hosted the state tournament in Jackson.

This year, by being able to play on-campus, Ostrander is hoping the Bobcats can continue their winning ways. He said preparation for opening day is on schedule.

“We started on Jan. 10 and we’ve been pretty lucky so far,” he said. “We have fought some cold and some rain here and there, but for the most part we have been able to get on the field and get a lot done. We’ve been getting the reps and just trying to get ready.”

Just how far the Bobcats can go in 2011 will be determined how they fare on the mound. And JCJC has a good starting point with the return of Stringer sophomore righthander Andrew Pierce.

Pierce, who has already signed with the University of Southern Mississippi, was a first-team NJCAA All-American, All-MACJC and All-Region 23 performer last year as a freshman.

He posted a 10-2 record with a 1.94 earned run average and four saves. He also had 106 strikeouts in 93 innings, allowed just 69 hits and walked only 23.

“Andrew (6-2, 165) was an All-American last year and he is, obviously, our ace,” said Ostrander. “We are counting on him to be that constant for us. We know when he goes out there with the baseball, he gives our team a chance to win. He is slated to be our No. 1 pitcher.”

The Bobcats must find some quality starters behind Pierce. Cory Williams (10-2, 1.67 ERA) graduated and signed with William Carey, while southpaw Zach Toney – who was injured early in 2010 – is at Austin Peay State University.

Behind Pierce, freshmen Logan Riddell and Vito Perna have impressed in preseason workouts. Riddell (6-2, 165) is a righthander from Brother Martin High School in Kenner, La., while Perna (6-4, 220) is a righthander from West Jones.

“I’m pretty certain Logan and Vito would be our other two top starters right now,” Ostrander said. “That gives us three solid guys.”

The No. 4 starter could be any one of several players, but Wayne County sophomore righthander Blake McIlwain (6-0, 175) is right at the top of the list.

“Blake is in the mix, along with a few others,” said Ostrander. “A couple of other guys may push for that role, but it just depends on what happens.”

Ostrander said redshirt sophomore righthander Josh Palmer, true freshman lefthander Chase Stewart and redshirt freshman righthhander Bryce Ladner have been steady performers during practice. Palmer (6-4 180) is from Wayne County, Stewart (6-2, 180) is from West Jones and Ladner (6-2, 190) is from Picayune.

“They have all been throwing the ball well,” Ostrander said.

The Bobcat closer is again likely to be sophomore righthander Ryan Waters. Waters (6-5, 250) is from Luling, La., and played at Hahnville High School. Last year, he posted a 3-4 record with two saves and a 3.67 ERA. He notched 48 strikeouts in 41 2/3innings and only issued two walks.

“Ryan had a great year last year,” said Ostrander. “He was a real solid force for us at the end of games coming out of the bullpen and we expect the same this year. He’s battle-tested and knows what that role entails. He knows what the expectations are.”

Ostrander said any pitcher not among the top four in the rotation will have to be ready when called upon out of the bullpen or as a spot starter. Those pitchers include redshirt freshman righthander Tyler Fall, sophomore lefthander Jaron Bailey, sophomore righthander Andrew Graham, freshman lefthander Jace Belcher and freshman righthander Cameron Rose.

Fall (5-11, 200) is from South Jones, Bailey (6-0, 185) is from Morgan City, La., Rose (5-11, 170) is from Oxford, while Graham (6-3, 160) and Belcher (6-2, 180) are both from Quitman. Graham is a transfer from East Mississippi Community College, while Rose is a transfer from Ole Miss.

“Tyler did not pitch because of an arm injury last year, but he has thrown the ball well this spring,” Ostrander said. “He is back 100 percent from that injury and is doing really good. Jaron had a little bit of an arm issue in the last game last year. We’ve been cautious with him, but we’ve rested and rehabbed him. He is doing great right now and can be another factor out of that bullpen for us.

“Andrew, Jace and Cameron are doing well and round out our bullpen. They will have an opportunity to pitch this year.”

The Bobcats have 13 pitchers listed on the roster. Ostrander said a deep staff is crucial on the junior college level.

“We are excited about our pitching staff,” he said. “We believe we have some good depth and we think we have some pretty good guys on the front end, too. I think we have a lot of options with our staff. Obviously, they have to perform when they get the ball and do their job.

“But through our intrasquad games and with what we have seen so far, we have a good mixture of starter-type guys and some middle-type guys who can get you to the late-inning pitchers. If everybody takes care of their responsibilities when they take the mound, I think we will be OK.”

Behind the plate, the Bobcats will utilize the services of three players, but only one has experience: Ryan Roberts. Roberts split time with Adam Burnett last year and Burnett has graduated. Roberts (6-2, 245) is a left-handed hitting sophomore from Pelham High School in Birmingham, Ala. He hit .284 last year.

“Ryan did a good job for us and he is kind of the leader back there for us right now,” said Ostrander. “We are expecting good things from him, but, obviously, we need more than just one catcher.”

Other catchers vying for playing time are freshmen Jay Dedeaux and Chad Guice. Dedeaux (5-11, 190) is from Picayune and Guice (5-8, 170) is from Sumrall.

“Jay has swung the bat well and we like what we are seeing behind the plate from him,” said Ostrander. “He has a little ways to go, but he is showing us can be a good player. Chad is splitting reps between catching and the outfield. In the fall, he took a lot of reps behind the plate, but he has been taking a few reps in the outfield this spring. Chad has swung the bat well and we like him offensively.”

A fourth catcher is David Walley (6-0, 210), a freshman from Richton. Walley will be redshirted this season after having arm surgery after his senior year of high school. He will be the bullpen catcher.

Around the infield, the Bobcats return experience with sophomore Nick Ray at first base, sophomore Graham Odom at shortstop and redshirt sophomore Chase Headrick at third base.  But they have to replace players such as Brock Landry (.333, 11 doubles) and Zachary Robertson (.323, five home runs), who started a lot of ballgames between them at second base, shortstop and third base over the past two years.

Ray (6-1, 200) is a left-handed batter from Gulfport and posted excellent numbers as a freshman after transferring from Mississippi State University last year. He hit .341, which is the highest batting average of any returning player, with five home runs, 40 RBIs and a team-high 13 doubles. However, he has been slowed by a wrist injury in preseason.

“Nick had a great year last year,” said Ostrander. “He started pretty much every game for us. We are looking for him to be a big factor for us, offensively and defensively. He can swing the bat and is an excellent defensive first baseman. He can help you win games with his glove. He was our 3-hole hitter last year and we are expecting the same from him this year.”

Perna, in addition to being a solid pitcher, will also play first base.

“Vito has been doing well and has really swung the bat well,” said Ostrander.

At second base, there are three players battling for the starting slot, including freshman Zach Allen, freshman Jon Glaze and sophomore Jay Bell. Allen (5-9, 150) is from Pascagoula, Glaze (5-8, 160) is from South Jones and Bell (5-8, 160) is from Gulfport and transferred to JCJC from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

“Zach is a ‘high-motor’ guy,” Ostrander said. “He is a solid defender with good speed. He is a scrappy, tough out at the plate and plays the game hard. He had a good fall and has had a good spring so far. Jon has gone out there and just gets better every day. He does a lot of things well.

“Jay provides us with some great competition and depth in the middle infield. He can play second, but played some short in high school. All of those guys are fighting and competing and we will have to make a decision on that opening day. But we feel like we’ve got some interchangeable parts here.”

Odom is the leader at shortstop, while freshman Tate Ratcliff is the backup. Odom (6-2, 165) is from Pascagoula and Ratcliff (5-8, 140) is from Ridgeland High School.

Ostrander loves the defense Odom brings to the table.

“Graham is a terrific defensive shortstop and started most every game for us there last year,” he said. “He was a blessing for us there last year and we are 100 percent confident he will make all of the routine plays for us this year and then some. Graham has gotten stronger and has improved at the plate. We are expecting more production from him there, but up the middle, he is a calming force and will make the plays for our pitchers.

“Tate is getting a lot of reps there, too. He is solid, as well, and has done great in our intrasquad games. Tate makes plays and provides great depth for us.”

Headrick, a redshirt sophomore, is another veteran leader on the infield.  He hit .292 with seven doubles in 2010. Freshman Blake Bowman and Rose have also been seeing practice time at third base. Headrick (6-0, 180) is from West Jones, while Bowman (6-0, 190) is from Benton and played at Manchester Academy.

“Chase is a third-year guy and was pretty much the guy for us at third last year,” said Ostrander. “He had a good year for us. He is a good defender and is solid offensively. He has been in the program for three years and knows what we want and what we expect. He knows the way we want to play the game. Third base is his position right now and we are excited about having him there.

“Blake has continued to improve. He was kind of feeling his way around in the fall and we can see him settling in a little bit right now. He is doing a pretty good job for us. Cameron can really play anywhere around the infield, in addition to pitching. But he provides us some depth at third base.”

In the outfield, the Bobcats return some experience in sophomores Ladd Rhodes and Darion Hamilton. But JCJC must replace a pair of productive players from last year – centerfielder Tyler Gardner, who was named as an All-American, and leftfielder Chris Lofton, who was drafted in the ninth round by the San Francisco Giants and signed a professional baseball contract.

Gardner led the team in several offensive categories, including batting average (.413), home runs (10), RBIs (57), triples (10), steals (19), total bases (125) and slugging percentage (.749). Lofton hit .331 and topped the team in runs scored with 59.

Rhodes was expected to be the starting centerfielder heading into the season, but he has been sidelined by a finger injury. Rhodes (6-1, 195) is a sophomore from Gulfport and signed early with Southeastern Louisiana University. He hit .273 with 13 steals last year.

In the preseason, the Bobcats have been working Hamilton in centerfield until Rhodes returns. Hamilton (6-2, 186) is a Taylorsville sophomore. He hit .280 in 2010.

“Unfortunately, Ladd has that injury, but we know what a good player he is,” said Ostrander. “Darion is a tremendous defensive outfielder and has a great arm. We are expecting really good things from him at the plate, as well.

“Ladd is a big part of our offense and our team. When he gets back, we hope to put him in center and move Darion over to right.”

Working in rightfield during preseason is freshman Tre Keyes and Guice. Keyes (5-9, 180) is from Raleigh.

“Tre is a left-handed hitter,” said Ostrander. “He has great speed. He plays hard and has done everything we have asked of him. Chad has had a good fall and spring with the bat and both of those guys are competing well.”

Another centerfielder in the mix is freshman Weston Stringer. Stringer (5-11, 150) is from Stringer.

“Weston has made the transition from infield to outfield this year,” said Ostrander. “He is another left-handed bat and has a little bit of speed. He gets after it and hustles hard.”

The leftfield position is up for grabs between a pair of freshmen: Zane Walley (6-2, 175) from West Jones and Jarrett Jenkins (5-8, 175) from Ridgeland.

“That has been a great battle out there,” Ostrander said. “It’s really been fun watching those guys compete. They have taken the competition well, they have elevated their game and they are getting after it pretty good since we got back after the break. It’s going to be a hard decision to see who the guy will be. They will both get their opportunities.

“Zane is a left-hander and has a little pop in the bat. He has some juice and can hit it over some guys’ heads. Jarrett is a tremendous runner with really good speed. He handles the bat well, can lay a bunt down and can run the bases. Their games are a little different, but they both bring a lot to the table.”

At designated hitter, Ostrander said it would depend on the hot hand. Like the depth on the pitching staff, Ostrander believes he will have several options at DH.

“In first two years here, we have not had the depth that I think we have there now with these bats,” he said. “We have some ‘grip it and rip it’ guys who can drive some gaps and we have some speed guys that can get on base and cause havoc.”

JCJC has enjoyed enormous success in Ostrander’s first two years, posting a remarkable 74-28 record. In addition to last year’s team, which posted a school-record 38 victories, two years ago the Bobcats were 36-16 and advanced to the state tournament.

Ostrander believes several factors, including team chemistry, will be keys to achieving similar success in 2011.

“We like our chemistry,” he said. “Just talking with our sophomore leaders, they say this group has gelled well and gotten along well. Those sophomores know because they are living together and hanging out with them all of the time.

“We have a great bunch of guys. They practice hard, they get after it and they are good students. That’s important because it really does make a difference. Overall, we are very excited.”

Ostrander added that new regulations regarding bats in college baseball could mean a significant change for all teams. He said home run numbers are likely to drop and most teams will have to play ‘small ball.’

“We could not play any outside competition in the fall, so it’s kind of hard to tell,” he said. “But I think we will be competitive. It may be a different type of team, especially in regards to the new regulations with the bats.

“College baseball is going to change from the offensive side with these bats, I believe. The emphasis is going to be on pitching, defense and being able to execute. I don’t think you will be able to sit back and wait on the three-run home runs. You will have to make things happen and I think we have the players to play that way.

“That’s the style I like. It all starts on the mound and when it leaves the pitcher’s hands, it up to defending and making plays. If you can do that, you will be in most of your games.”

The Bobcats rolled to a 17-7 division record in 2010, winning 11 of their final 12 league games to claim the championship.

Ostrander said the South Division race is wide open at this point.

“The South Division is a dogfight each year and I expect that again,” he said. “Hinds won the state last year and they are loaded.  You’ve got East Central, who was really good last year, Gulf Coast and Pearl River. Then, you throw in Co-Lin and Southwest. You have got to show up and play. You are not going to be given anything – you’ve got to earn it.

“We are expecting another battle, but our goal is to win the South and, ultimately, the state championship and so forth.”

In addition to the season opening doubleheader vs. Baton Rouge, JCJC will play several more difficult non-division foes, including Itawamba Community College, East Mississippi, Northwest Mississippi Community College, Faulkner State Community College (Ala.) and Jeff Davis Community College (Ala.). Itawamba is ranked No. 6 in the nation in the NJCAA preseason poll, the only MACJC school to be rated.

“We beefed up our non-conference schedule this year,” Ostrander said. “We’ve got some more quality opponents and that’s good. That will help prepare us for the South. We will lose some games – that’s just part of college baseball.  But if we can learn from that and handle some adversity and realize what level of play we need to reach, we should be pretty good.”

Even though the Bobcats have won quite a number of games the past two years, they have not been able to advance past the state tournament. They have swept their opening round, best-of-three playoff series, but they have one 0-2 in the four-team, double-elimination tournament both years.

Ostrander said reaching the Region 23 Tournament – which would require one victory in the state tournament – is a definite goal.

“For whatever reason, we have not done that,” he said. “Once we have gotten to the four-team tournament, we did not get it done. We’ve lost some close games and we’ve been right there. One pitch here, one hit here or one play here and you give yourself a chance and you do win a game.

“But that’s part of it. All you can do is get yourself to that point and anything can happen. It’s a matter of a team getting hot at the right time. We got hot to win the South last year when we went 11-1 in the second half. Baseball is a game of ups and downs and you have to weather the storm and be consistent. But you want to be playing your best baseball at the end of the year.”

The same postseason format will be used again this year. The top four teams in each division will play a best-of-three playoff series with the winners advancing to a four-team, double elimination state tournament at the site of the South Division winner. The top three teams from the state tournament head to the Region 23 Tournament at the site of the highest remaining North Division team.

Ostrander noted the overall depth on this year’s squad is outstanding. But he said finding the right combination of starters could take some time.

“It will be a challenge to put the right pieces out there,” he said. “The game one lineup may be a little different than game two or game ten. We have some options. But if these guys accept their roles, work hard and keep a positive attitude when they are not in there, then we are going to be a pretty good team.”

Ostrander also credits his coaching staff with being instrumental to the success of the Bobcat baseball program. Reggie Richardson is in his fourth-year as an assistant coach, while Chris Kirtland enters his second year.

“They do a great job working with our players on the field as far as coaching and off the field as far as recruiting and organization,” Ostrander said. “They make my job a lot easier. We are all in it together. We are all level and even and we treat it that way. One coach is not more important than the other.

“I believe in that because I was an assistant for many years, too. It’s all about winning and we are all on the same page. I’m very fortunate to have these guys because of their willingness to work hard.”

Now, Ostrander and his staff and Bobcats are looking forward to playing games that count, especially the home games at Community Bank Park.

“It’s a beautiful facility and we are going to try and do our part to put a quality product on the field,” he said. “We are going to try and play the game the right way. I hope people come out and support us and we are going to have a great atmosphere at the ballpark.

“We are ready to get out there and get it going.”

The opening game vs. Baton Rouge CC will have a live audiocast on with Lance Pittman on the call. Airtime is 1:55 p.m. Other games to be announced will air throughout the season.




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