Losing a season because of the COVID-19 pandemic was a painful blow to all involved. But even more so to the Kansas City Kansas Community College baseball team.
The Blue Devils had opened Jayhawk Conference play by taking three of four games from perennial power Cowley College, were 4-2 in the league and 14-6 overall when the NJCAA was forced to shut down every 2020 spring sport.
"Everyone was going through the same thing but it felt like we had something special going, especially offensively," said KCKCC head coach Matt Goldbeck. "It was just sad not to be able see guys like catcher Griffin Everett, who was off to an All-American season and now is at Nebraska, be able to finish the season."
While Blue Devil sophomores could have returned this spring, several were offered four-year opportunities too good to turn down. Six starters, the entire infield except for third base and two outfielders along with the ace of the pitching staff, are on four-year college rosters right now. "We had seven or eight with 4.0 grade point averages and they had graduated so staying was not in their best interests," said Goldbeck.
Which has left Goldback with a roster of two sophomores, 15 pandemic freshmen and 17 true freshmen to open the home season Friday, Feb. 26, with a single game against Barton County at 2 p.m. and a doubleheader Saturday at noon.
"The biggest question mark is an unproven offense," says Goldbeck, who lost his top six hitters from last spring. "Normally we would play 20 fall games. So we did the best thing, work on fundamentals three days and have intra-squad play three days. Our pitching has a little more experience, a little more battle tested." Returnees accounted for 110 of the 146 innings played last spring.
Goldbeck will build his starting pitching staff around sophomore Gabriel Ramos and second year veterans Parker Weddle, Hunter Cashero, lefthander Tyler Kapraun and newcomer Alan Mercado, a transfer from Florida Southwestern State. "Weddle will be No. 1 followed by Mercado, Ramos and either Cashero or Kapraun," says Goldbeck. Ramos was 4-0 last spring, striking out 17 and walking 10 in 26 innings while Weddle had a 3.00 earned run average in seven appearances. Cashero made eight appearance while returnees Tre Simmons and Joseph Reyes were both 1-0.
Righthanders Chase Terrell of Bonner Springs and Eli Tormes will head a bullpen that will also include southpaw Logan Barnard of Lansing and righthanders Sebastian Velez, Brett Owen and Steven Santiago. Terrell was 1-1 with a 3.21 ERA in eight games last spring, all in relief.
A pair of true freshmen will share the catching duties, Brayden Vawter of Topeka Seaman and Camden Karlin of Lawrence Free State. "Vawter will probably be the designated hitter when he's not catching while Karlin is a rare pitcher/catcher," says Goldbeck. "Either position takes a big toll on the body. Doing both will be demanding and we're a little thin depth-wise behind the plate so we need to keep him healthy."
Three starting infield positions are set. Palmer Hutchinson, who hit .269 last spring, will return at third base while Brendyn Bard of Piper will start at first base and Cole Dawson at shortstop. Both are true freshmen. The starting second base job is a toss-up between at quintet of candidates. Cole Slibowski, who hit .273 in 12 games, and Sam Juarez, who batted 286 in 10 contests, are being challenged by true freshmen Beau Grable, Ivan Ortiz and Asnaldo Calcedo.
True sophomore Raymond Paniagua returns in centerfield where he batted .381with only one error last season. He'll be flanked in leftfield by Pablo Sanchez, a transfer from Wabash, and Caleb Adams of Lansing in right. Adams, who hit .238, had a pair of home runs against Cowley. They'll be backed Jaylon Johnson, who could also see designated hitting action; and Caleb Troutt of Lansing and Hardy Begman of Basehor-Linwood. Infield backups will include Caleb Brown, Darius Freeman and first basemen Carter McLaughlin and Brock Stewart. Freeman could also see action behind the plate, McLaughlin in the outfield and Stewart on the mound.
"Defensively, our outfield should be a plus and I think we'll be solid on the infield," says Goldbeck. "We'll also have some power but not as much as last spring."
Veteran Bill Sharp heads the Blue Devils' staff of assistants that also included Pedro Leon, Preston Bailey and Hector Garcia.