Thursday, February 16, 2017
The moving parts and drastic changes that took place last year in the aftermath of the Southeast Missouri State baseball team's most historic season were inevitable.
It's the kind of thing that happens to programs that transcend normality and propel a small town like Cape Girardeau into the limelight.
After leading the Redhawks to three straight Ohio Valley Conference regular-season championships in his four years at the helm, Steve Bieser moved on. The opportunity was too good to pass up, and he was announced as the new head coach at the University of Missouri in late June. A month later, former Kansas State assistant coach Andy Sawyers was announced as Bieser's replacement, becoming the sixth head coach in the history of SEMO's program.
It's been almost seven months since Sawyers took the job, and as the Redhawks begin their 2017 campaign as co-favorites in the conference, the rookie head coach knows what he's up against. Southeast is coming off an OVC tournament championship, advancing to an NCAA Regional for the first time since 2002, and will have to deal with the loss of 14 players, including the league's only two-time Pitcher of the Year in Joey Lucchesi.
But rebuilding is nothing new to Sawyers, who's been a part of two appearances in the College World Series, three in the NCAA Super Regionals and 10 in the NCAA Regionals during his 18-year coaching career. In the end, he believes it boils down to players, and the Redhawks bring back plenty of firepower, with 21 returning players, including six starters.
"Usually when you take over a program, it's because it's not in good shape, right? That's definitely not the situation here," Sawyers said. "They have been winning, and I expect us to continue to win. I don't think it's so much about anybody's expectations. That's just the kind of team we have -- we've got a good club. We've got a veteran club. We've got some talented newcomers on the way. They're here right now.
"Having those guys that have been through the fight and been in the battle before, it gives me, as the new head coach, a lot of comfort."
Trevor Ezell returns as a fixture in the leadoff spot and will start at second base after batting .326 last season. The junior switch hitter scored a team-high 70 runs and had 35 RBIs while stealing a team-leading 23 bases on 25 attempts.
Sawyers referred to Ezell as the team's "best all-around player."
"He's an extremely tough out at the top of the lineup," Sawyers said. "He knows how to take a walk and uses the whole field. He'll get you a double when you need it. He's just a very complete player.
"He's kind of the straw that stirs the drink for us. He's our best player. He kind of makes us go."
Senior Brian Lees will return as the starting catcher after starting 51 games a year ago, hitting .269 with 37 RBIs.
Chris Caffrey, a senior third baseman, also returns to the infield. He made 31 starts in 2016 and finished the season with a batting average of .276.
The rest of the infield will see some new faces.
Sawyers has been impressed with the emergence of Tristen Gagan, a transfer from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, where he played 50 games last season and batted .448 with 15 home runs and 79 RBIs. Although he played third base in junior college, Gagan will start at first base for the Redhawks, assuming a middle-of-the-order role in the batting order.
"He's an RBI machine," Sawyers said about Gagan. "I think he's going to have a chance to lead the league in RBIs. He's got great hand-eye coordination. He doesn't swing and miss very often. He's got middle-of-the-field power."
At shortstop, Kyle Bottger will get the early nod to replace a four-year stalwart in Branden Boggetto, who hit .339 last season with 61 RBIs before getting selected by the Washington Nationals in the 25th round of the 2016 MLB Draft.
Bottger transferred to the program from North Central Texas and is coming off a season in which he hit .338 with 35 RBIs.
There might not be a more dangerous weapon in the Redhawks' arsenal than redshirt senior Chris Osborne, who returns as an everyday starter in right field.
Osborne led the nation in slugging last season (.741) and was SEMO's top hitter, finishing with a .367 batting average. He had 15 home runs and 44 RBIs but was limited to only 40 starts after dealing with a tendon injury in his wrist. He underwent surgery during the summer and returned to the field for the fall season. By Osborne's own account, he was back to 100 percent by the time October rolled around.
"He's got big-time power, and in the fall, he was really kind of all-or-nothing. He swung and missed a lot," Sawyers said. "... He's using the whole field right now. He's been giving us some incredibly tough at-bats, which he's kind of gone from a power guy to more of a complete hitter for us."
Osborne, who's one of three Redhawks on this year's preseason All-OVC team, believes that changing his approach at the plate before last season enabled him to have a breakout campaign. He's continued to simplify the process and has focused on becoming even more of a challenge for opposing pitchers.
"I'm just trying to focus on controlling the whole plate," Osborne said. "Last year I kind of struggled with the outside pitch a little bit, but this year I feel a lot more confident of being able to cover every pitch that's going to be thrown at me."
Dan Holst, a senior, returns to center field after starting all but one game a year ago. Holst was fifth on the team with a .322 batting average, and he finished the season with 42 RBIs, eight home runs and 22 stolen bases.
Senior Daniel Costello, a left-handed batter, and redshirt senior Clayton Evans, a right-handed hitter, will get the chance to contribute, providing the team with what Sawyers calls "platoon options" in left field. Costello batted .285 last season in 33 starts, while Evans sat out the season due to injury. As a junior in 2015, Evans hit .352 and had 23 RBIs and five home runs.
"I think you've got good balance," Sawyers said about his outfielders. "You've got a guy who's going to get on base and another guy who's going to drive him in and then a right- or left-handed option in left field. I think it just gives us some matchup options to where we can always do some things that will put us in the best position to win."
After being named MVP of the OVC tournament, Lucchesi went on to become the highest-drafted player in Southeast history when he was chosen by the San Diego Padres in the fourth round of the MLB Draft. In his final college season, he led the nation in strikeouts (149) and finished with an OVC-leading ERA of 2.19.
Lucchesi's absence will undoubtedly be felt, but Southeast returns most of its experience in a pair of weekend starters who are now seniors.
Lefty Robert Beltran and right-handed pitcher Clay Chandler were each named to the preseason all-conference team. Beltran posted an 8-1 record last year with a 4.27 ERA, while Chandler went 4-5 with an ERA of 3.90.
Both will move up a day in the weekend rotation, with Chandler to Fridays and Beltran to Saturdays. Joining that group will be another senior, Justin Murphy, who had a 4-2 record with five saves as last year's closer.
"It's not like they're throwing 94 [miles per hour] like Joey Lucchesi, but they all can pitch," Sawyers said about his weekend starters. "They've got command of the second pitch and can pitch inside. They're going to mix well. They're all good athletes, so they're athletic and can field their positions.
"I just feel like they're well-rounded. They're going to throw strikes, change speeds, work fast, field their positions, do all the little things. I don't know if we're going to have the OVC Pitcher of the Year like we had the last two years with Joey, but I think as a unit with those three seniors together, we might have the best starting rotation [in the conference]. I think it's more going to be the body of work with them as a total than one guy going out there and winning 14 games."
Lefty Nate Green, a junior college transfer from Ventura College in Ventura, California, will assume the role as the Redhawks' mid-week starter.
Junior Carlos Vega, a right-handed pitcher, will take over as SEMO's closer after transferring from Arizona Western. He was 8-3 with a 2.44 ERA as a starter last season, striking out 90 hitters in 66 1/3 innings of work.
A pair of juniors will be used in relief in Matthew Wade (RHP) and Adam Pennington (LHP) return for the Redhawks. Wade registered a 4.91 ERA in 14 2/3 innings of work last season, while Pennington had a 4-1 record with an ERA of 4.07 in 48 2/3 innings of action.