ICC Athletic News

2014 Cougar Baseball Preview

For the third time in 13 seasons under head coach Brett Kelley, the Illinois Central College baseball team re-wrote the school record books. Kelley’s 2013 squad posted an overall record of 38-19, shattering the previous record for wins: 33, which was set by the 2005 squad.

The Cougars opened the season by beating three nationally ranked teams – John A. Logan College, Pearl River (Miss.) Community College and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Those victories helped them achieve the highest national ranking in the program’s history – No. 8 in the NJCAA Division II National Coach’s Poll.

Under Kelley’s guidance, the Cougars went on to win six out of eight possible conference series. The 2013 Cougars just missed shattering another record held by the 2005 squad – the record for conference wins. The 2005 Cougars posted a 22-2 conference mark, while the 2013 squad was 20-10 in conference play, good for a third-place finish in the Mid-West Athletic Conference.

Offensively, the Cougars boasted one of the nation’s best lineups. As a team, ICC hit .300 collectively and finished ranked 3rd nationally in triples (22), 10th nationally in home runs (27) and 21st nationally in doubles (84). All those record-setting performances led to big crowds at home games. The Cougars drew 2,754 fans to their 18 home contests, good for second nationally among all NJCAA teams.

“Last year was special, no doubt,” Kelley said. “It takes a special group of kids, a special kind of chemistry, to have the year that we had. But now we’ve got to focus on 2014 and the one thing we’re stressing is there’s no going backwards. We expect to keep improving and it’s our goal to make the NJCAA Division II World Series.”

Here’s a look at the team that Kelley and his six-man coaching staff – Brian Lewis (hitting coach/3rd base coach), Mike McDonald (infield coach/1st base coach), Tom Kinney (pitching coach), Mike Fulkerson (outfield/baserunning coach), Mike Mason (bullpen coach) and Ben Diggle (recruiting coordinator) – have assembled with the goal of winning the Mid-West Athletic Conference and the Region XXIV tourney on their way to the NJCAA World Series.

Pitching

Sophomore left-hander Matt Farrington was the only freshman in the Cougars’ 2013 pitching rotation and he responded by posting a 5-3 record with a 3.75 ERA, 34 strikeouts and 21 walks in 48 innings.

“Matt was awfully good for us last year and we expect the same this year,” Pitching coach Tom Kinney said. “Everything he throws has movement and he’s a competitor who is not easily rattled.”

Kinney will need Farrington’s experience at the top of the rotation because not many experienced arms return. Nine different players started games for the Cougars in 2013 and six of those players – who accounted for 41 of the 57 starts – have moved on.

Also making multiple starts in 2013 and returning in 2014 are right-handers Rick Sullivan (2-2, 6.22 ERA in 4 starts), Jake Light (0-0, 9.00 ERA in 2 starts) and Braden McIntyre (2-2 with a 9.98 ERA in 2 starts).

“All three of those kids are outstanding leaders,” Kinney said. “We’re looking for big improvements from all of them, similar to the jumps that guys like Brock Adcock and Ryan Vansaghi made last year.”

Those are not the only players with college experience returning, however. Joining the Cougars staff in 2014 will be sophomore transfer Jared Holloman, redshirt freshman transfer Andrew Christensen and redshirt freshmen Joel Taylor.

Holloman made six starts in 2013 at Grace (Ind.) College and posted a 2-5 record with a 5.45 ERA, 15 strikeouts and 12 walks in 38 innings pitched. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound southpaw has inserted himself into the conversation for a starting role as has Taylor, who redshirted last year after suffering a stress fracture above the elbow in his throwing arm. Christensen, who redshirted at Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2013, could see both time as a starter and a reliever depending on the need.

“That’s our offensive line,” Kinney said with a laugh. “All three of those kids have prototypical pitching size at 6-3 or 6-4 or taller and 220-plus pounds and they use that size to their advantage.”

The wild card in the sophomore group appears to be first baseman Blake Uhlman and outfielder Brad Burton. After not seeing any mound time in 2013, both players have expressed a willingness to serve as relievers if needed.

“That’s the just the kind of competitors they are,” Kinney said. “They want the ball with the game on the line.”

Kinney is also excited about his freshmen class. Right-handers Skyler Arnberger (Williamsville HS) and Kyle Matthews (Winchester West Central HS) and left-hander Alex Shake (Canton HS) have all made bids to join the starting rotation, while right-handers Brogan Fischer (Alton Marquette HS) and Ray Bailey (HS) will be counted on late in games. Mike Hainline (Olympia HS), Levi Slawta (Brownsburg (Ind.) HS), Steven Mitts (Richwoods HS), Chris Boettcher (Metamora HS) and Brandon Holst (Fieldcrest HS) will be called upon to handle situational relief duties.

“There’s a lot of potential in this class,” Kinney said. “It will be exciting to see these kids develop and then take leadership roles in 2015.”

Catchers

Throughout the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Dylan Van Fleet was the Cougars regular catcher, including 48 starts in 2013. But with the departure of Van Fleet and his top back up, Cody Mirabal, the Cougars are relying on four newcomers behind the dish.

Angling for playing time will be Jason Priest (Pontiac HS), Nick Schranck (Alton Marquette HS), Jared McCunn (Eureka HS) and Jake Ketcham (Canton HS).

“All of these young men have some skills to play at the college level,” said infielding/catching coach Mike McDonald. “But they’ve each got some things to clean up as well. The good news is, they’ve all proven that they’re willing to work.”

Perhaps even better news for head coach Brett Kelley is the fact that all four players are versatile, meaning that even if they can’t find time at catcher, their bat can find a place in the lineup.

“McCunn and Priest both have extensive experience at third base and Schranck and Ketcham have outfield experience,” Kelley said. “So that kind of added depth and flexibility is invaluable to our program.”

Infielders

Three of the four infield spots boast returnees. The lone departure is shortstop Justin Fletcher, who accepted a scholarship to Northern Illinois following his freshman year.

The leading returnee is the aforementioned Blake Uhlman. Uhlman split time between centerfield and first base early in 2013 before finally settling in as the Cougars’ every day first baseman when a concussion knocked out Cougar regular Jared Pyatt. Uhlman appeared in 24 games and hit .279 with a triple and six RBIs. He was also flawless defensively as he didn’t commit an error in 82 chances.

“Blake came to us somebody who had spent time as a shortstop and a centerfielder,” McDonald said. “His athleticism has made him an outstanding first baseman.”

At second base, Morgan Depew return after hitting .262 with a double, a triple and 3 RBIs in 20 games (13 starts). At third base, Luke Stewart returns. Despite playing behind all Region XXIV pick Alex Gutierrez, Stewart made the most of his limited times by hitting .391 with 3 doubles and 5 RBIs in 10 games.

“Defensively, both Morgan and Luke have really steadied our infield,” McDonald said. “They have both been flawless this spring, but we’ll need them to hit in order to be successful.”

Fletcher will be replaced by another freshman, Mason McCoy (Washington Community HS). McCoy comes to ICC after a record-setting high-school career in which he started all four years for the Panthers and broke the career-batting average record held by Grant Escue, who continued his career at Stanford University and Bradley University.

“With this staff, we’ve had a strong tradition of shortstops, starting with Ethan Westart, who was an all-M-WAC shortstop back in 2012 and then Fletcher,” McDonald said. “And we think Mason can be the next in that line.”

Seeing time on the infield will be freshmen Patrick Jarvis (first base) and Matt Halliday (middle infield).

Outfielders

Despite the loss of all-conference outfielders Zach Jacobs and Luke Lucchetti, the Cougars’ return plenty of experience in the form of sophomores Brad Burton, J.P. Meyer and Jaren Linton.

Burton is the Cougars’ leading returning regular after appearing in 45 games with 42 starts. Burton hit .273 with 6 home runs, 6 doubles and 27 RBIs. Meyer started 35 games and hit .261 with 7 doubles, 2 triples, 2 home runs and 18 RBIs.

“They’re going to be counted on to not only be the anchors in the corners of the outfield, but to power our lineup as well,” said outfield/baserunning coach Mike Fulkerson. “And I think they can both do it.”

Joining Meyer and Burton in the outfield will be Linton, who is transitioning from middle infield to centerfield. Linton hit .226 with 2 doubles, 2 triples and 10 RBIs in 24 games.

“Jaren is another kid who was always telling us he was willing to play wherever we needed him to play,” Fulkerson said. “His skillset – good speed and a nose for the ball – lends itself well to centerfield.”

Joining the three sophomores in the outfield will be freshman Tyler Hilton (East Peoria HS) and Jake Hargis  (Metamora HS).

Around the M-WAC

After finishing third in 2013, the Cougars have set their sights on earning their first Mid-West Athletic Conference championship since 2005. To do it, they’ll have to contend against the usual lineup of nationally ranked programs.

“We believe we play in the best conference in the country,” Kelley said. “There’s no such thing as an easy weekend in the M-WAC.”

To return the title to East Peoria, the Cougars will have to get by Heartland, which has made back-to-back trips to the NJCAA World Series.

“If you want to win the M-WAC, you have to go through Heartland,” Kelley said. “They’ve proven themselves to be the top dog and if you want that title, you have to take it from them.”

Also proving formidable obstacles will be Danville Area and Parkland College. Danville Area eliminated the Cougars in the semifinals of the Region XXIV tournament.

“At the end of the day, we know what we have to do,” Kelley said. “We think we have the talent and the drive to take on that task and earn a trip to the World Series.”