With the spring semester ended and graduation just around the corner, it's time to hand out final grades – in this case the Kansas City Kansas Community College baseball team and first year coach Matt Goldbeck.
Winning more than twice as many games as they lost (41-20), the Blue Devils earned a solid A. In arguably the toughest two-year college baseball conference in the nation, the Blue Devils were in contention for the Jayhawk East championship right down to the final week, finishing third behind Neosho County, the league champion and No. 1 ranked team in the NJCAA, and Cowley, which won the Region VI super-regional playoffs and is headed for another appearance in the NJCAA World Series in Grand Junction, Colo.
The Blue Devils also had nine players earn All-Jayhawk East honors led by first team outfielder Eli Lovell and second team selections Conor Behrens at first base and Travis Stroup at third. Both Stroup and Behrens also earned Gold Gloves for their defensive play.
But it wasn't the 41 wins nor all the post-season honors that made Goldbeck most proud. "We were fortunate to have a great group of young men who worked hard on and off the field," said Goldbeck. "We had so many people complement us on how well behaved our players were, from the people in the study hall in library, bus drivers, fund raisers.
"While we were disappointed we didn't go farther in the tournament, the main thing is to put kids in position to make good grades, perform well on the field, continue to get better and move on to the next level."
The Blue Devils will lose a dozen players to graduation this spring. At least a half-dozen are being considered for NCAA Division I or Division II programs and Goldbeck expects everyone to have an opportunity to move on to four-year programs.
Following on the heels of NJCAA Hall of Famer Steve Burleson provided new experiences for Goldbeck. "Not a lot of difference on the field having been around 21 years and having a great mentor to teach me the ins and outs of the game made for a fairly easy transition," said Goldbeck. "But there's a lot of other things that go into coaching baseball or any coaching, making sure kids go to class, fund-raising, taking care of bringing in new recruits and recruiting new kids. A lot goes into it."
On the field, the Blue Devils had a team batting average of .352 that was highest in the last four years. All nine Blue Devils starters hit .314 or better. "Coach (Bill) Sharp was in charge of hitting and did an excellent job," said Goldbeck.
Graduation will take the heart right out of the lineup, the No. 2 through 5 hitters in the lineup – Behrens, Stroup, Lovell and outfielder Ryan Fisher. Together, they had a combined .407 batting average, belted 43 home runs and drove in 244 runs.
Lovell and Stroup waged a season-long duel in the team batting race with Lovell edging Stroup .451-.447. Lovell also led in hits (96), extra base hits (41), home runs (15), RBI (82) and stolen bases (16) while Stroup had 85 hits, 39 extra base hits, 13 home runs and 55 RBI. Behrens also had 85 hits, 38 extra base hits, nine home runs, 47 RBI and a 378 average while Fisher (.357) was second in RBI with 60 along with seven home runs and 26 extra base hits. "It's going to be tough to replace that kind of offense," said Goldbeck, who position-wise will also lose catcher Malone Smith (.264) and outfielder Daulton Smith (.245).
The Blue Devils will also lose two pitchers who earned All-Jayhawk honorable mention, Brandon Reid (6-2), who had two shutouts and two 2-hitters in his last four starts, and reliever Avery Fliger (7-2) who led in ERA (2.81) and had four saves in addition to seven wins. A redshirt freshman, Fliger graduates and is expect to move on. Other pitching losses will include starter Dustin Eby (4-2 in 12 starts), Tanner Vestal (3-2), Ross Perez (2-0) and Alton Walker (0-0).
The Blue Devil cupboard, however, will not be left bare. The middle infield combo of second baseman Easton Fortuna and shortstop Albert Woodard return along with catcher Drew Holtgrieve and outfielder Chase Redick, and part-time starters Zach Mahoney and Ty Bradshaw.
Holtgrieve, who hit .341 and drove in 49 runs, and Woodard, .314 and 38 RBI, both earned All-Jayhawk honorable mention while Redick hit .362 and drove in 47 runs from the leadoff spot and Fortuna hit .344 with 21 RBI. Mahoney batted .273 with 23 RBI in 46 games and Bradshaw hit a sizzling .412 in 19 contests. Other returnees include Levi Froud (,269), Ryne McDonald (.250) and Joe Ramos (.100).
Jake Purl, who led in wins with a 9-2 record and was all-conference honorable mention, heads the returnees on the pitching staff. The list also includes Chad Cox, 4-1 with four saves; Cameron Bednar, 3-3 in 18 games, Colton Kenagy (2-1), Gunner Vestal (0-2), Ryker Johnson (0-1) and Elija Baig (0-0).
"You have to remember that a lot of our sophomore starters didn't hit well as freshmen and Brandon Reid only threw three innings last year and was our most dominant player this year," said Bill Sharp, one of Goldbeck's assistants along with Lendsey Thompson. "I'm very fortunate to have such dedicated assistant coaches in Bill and Lendsey," said Goldbeck. "I'm sure they work as hard as any coaches in the country."