Cougars to open baseball season Thursday
Western Nebraska Community College baseball coach Mike Jones is anxious to get the season going to see just how well this year's team will be.
Jones' enthusiasm is definitely upbeat as the Cougars open the season on Thursday and Friday when they host McCook Community College in doubleheaders beginning at 2 p.m. at Cleveland Field. The contests were moved up from the weekend to beat the forecasted bad weather.
"We look ahead of where we looked in the past," Jones said. "I believe we will be a solid team. We have guys that can play multiple positions so we are going to bounce guys around. It will be different because we have depth with so many guys that play different positions, so we are not locked into one or two guys at a position. It will be a lot of utility players put together. We should stay together as a team and I am looking forward to the season."
Not only is Jones excited to get the season underway, the players are especially anxious to get going.
"I think the excitement will continue to build throughout the week for the players," Jones said. "You will find guys get more and more excited as the opening day gets closer and closer. That is always a special day for everybody. But, it is just another baseball game. It is one of 56 so we can't put too much emphasis on it, but it is more of an opportunity to play."
The Cougars number one goal is to reverse the record from a year ago. Last season, the Cougars finished 14-33 and failed to make the regional playoffs. Jones said what he is stressing to the team is to learn from each game and remember that this is a long season.
"I think it will be important for our guys to understand that we will be challenged a lot early in the season. It will be really tough early and we will face some really tough teams," he said. "We are going to face some good pitching. It is important for our guys to understand that it is a work in progress and that it is a marathon, not a sprint. We have to get better each game and learning from each game and not get discouraged."
The Cougars have a good nucleus of returners to help lead the team. The returners include Grant Rimington of Gering, Zach Ostergard of North Platte, Ernesto Punales of Hialeah, Fla., Challis Wright of Aurora, Colo., Keeton Krause of Loveland, Colo., Pablo Garcia of Orlando, Fla., Nick Vanthillo of Brasschaat, Belgium, and Richard Hernandez of Holly, Colo. Other sophomores on the team include Ozzie Gonzalez of Miami, Fla., and Alex Michaud of Olathe, Kan.
Jones said there are a few guys that are standing out among the rest.
"Ozzie Gonzalez is hitting the ball well and Cameron Snyder [of Aurora, Colo.] had a wonderful fall," he said. "Alex Michaud has shown a lot of power potential and Gabriel DeLa Rosa has showed a lot of offensive potential. I think we have a good core of guys to build around."
Jones said the pitching rotation will be centered around three sophomores, two of which saw spot action a year ago. Vanthilio will open the season as the No. 1 pitcher. Last season, Vanthilio was the starting rightfielder.
Rimington right know is the team's number pitcher and and start the second game on Thursday. Wright will start the second game on Friday, while freshman John Timmins of Bellevue will get the start in the first game on Friday.
"Nick moves from right field to our No. 1 pitching spot and he is a strong arm guy that throws with a lot of velocity. He is still learning how to pitch but he is going to learn as he plays," Jones said. "We are going to give him the baseball and let him go after hitters. He is going to make mistakes, but that is OK. That is how it works as a junior college baseball team.
"Grant Rimington is going to get the ball also. He has shown the ability to execute pitches within the strike zone and do a lot of cool stuff for us while mixing in a lot of off-speed pitches.
Overall, the pitching will be young as the rotation gets innings under their belt.
"I think the pitching is still a bit of a question mark," Jones said. "We have a lot of young arms that will have to eat up some innings. The guys with experience are really going to have to carry the load. We will just see how the pitching carries out."
Offensively, though, Jones said this team will be capable of scoring plenty of runs.
"Right now, offensively, we look good," he said. "For the most part we are aggressive. We have a group of guys that go together where we have our on base guys, our singles guys, our guys that can drive in runs, guys that can hit for power, and that is all mixed with some speed. So, I think we will be able to create scoring opportunities. I am not saying we will score a bunch, but we will create a lot of opportunities."
After this week's four-game non-conference games with McCook, the Cougars hit the road to play four games against Odessa College before facing Barton Community College on the road. WNCC will not be back at home until March 9 and 10 when they host Lamar Community College and Otero Junior College in conference games.
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