The Prairie Fire baseball team has begun its charge for the elusive Midwest Conference Championship this spring. Having returned from their spring training in Arizona with a 3-9 record, the team is anxious. After a rough first weekend back being swept by powerhouse Illinois College and Washington University of St. Louis, the team looks to make a legitimate run at a Southern division title, and after that, a MWC title to match.
“We finished at about .500 in conference last year,” said junior shortstop Adam Estergard. “We have a lot of potential all over the team, we just need to capitalize on it.” With a conference record of 6-6 last year, the team was forced into a playoff with Illinois College, which ended in an unfortunate trip home. Estergard is confident that the team can get over that hurdle this year, and make a splash in the playoffs.
Coach Jamie Isaacson, now in his eighth year as head coach at Knox, is cautiously confident that the team can do what needs to be done.
“Honestly, we haven’t shown much general improvement from last year,” said Isaacson. “We have a lot of offensive potential in the lineup; we just need to make it happen out on the field. We need guys like (Kevin) Malone, (Paul) Bennett, and Estergard to step it up, and do what they have to.”
The team was in the top three last year in batting average, and Isaacson hopes to continue this success this year. Pitching, which proved to be something of a problem last year, is looking good for the future. Freshmen Jordan Ball and Colin Davis, both recruited last year to bolster the rotation and eventually take over the pitching at Knox, are showing promise. Both pitched well in Arizona, but suffered at times from bad decisions and lack of run support.
“Our pitching staff has taken a step forward,” said Isaacson. “The young guys are just making some mistakes late in counts, giving up some hits they shouldn’t. They just need the experience, and with experience comes success once they settle in there.”
In addition to the two young starters, Isaacson is hoping junior Sammy Almohandis will be able to move to the bullpen again this year and hold it down late in the later innings.
“Sam gave us some good games as a reliever last year, and now that we have Ball and Davis, I’m hoping we can move him back to the ‘pen again.” The pitching staff has some decent depth with anywhere from five to eight pitchers in all, and promise shows in this, the linchpin of any great team.
Though several players are looking to improve on last year’s numbers, Isaacson is hoping sophomore George Nicholson in particular can have a real breakout year.
“George is looking real good out there,” Isaacson said. “He is great with runners in scoring position, and even though he’s only hitting .289 right now, it’s a hard .289, and soon enough those balls will fall where he wants them to.”
Coming off of the spring trip, the leading hitter on the team is senior Greg Leibach, at .364, with an OBP of .417. He is tied thus far with Nicholson for RBI’s with nine. Junior Kevin Malone and senior Paul Bennett both have one homerun, leading the team. Sophomore Spencer McNeal holds an ERA of 4.38, while Almohandis leads the team in strikeouts, with 17 in 16 innings.
Said Estergard, “It just feels good to get outside and on the field, grabbing live balls of the dirt.”
The team had a double header Wednesday against Beloit College, a chance to help themselves in the playoff race. The first game started well, Estergard hitting a two-run shot in the first, and grabbing another RBI in the third. Ball pitched three innings of one run ball, letting up only a homer in the third to Beloit’s Dan Edwards.
Ball was relieved by sopomore Aaron Juarez, who only lasted one inning after getting two men out, then was nickled and dimed for six hits and five runs before nabbing the last out, as Beloit led 6-3. Knox pulled within one in the bottom of the fifth, as Malone drove in sophomore Alex Petik and junior John Curtin, but the deal was sealed as Almohandis, despite pitching masterfully for the last three innings, allowed a home run to Mike Ross, the first batter of the sixth inning, making it 7-5. Almohandis finished with three strikeouts in three innings, and Estergard led the offense, with a dinger and three RBIs.
The second game of the double bill ended in disaster, as the Fire fell, 14-3. Knox hurler Spencer McNeil allowed seven runs, five earned off eight hits, with the bullpen being paraded out, as freshman Justin Cutter let up two more on four hits in three innings. Sophomore Tyler Hofauf gave up a trying three runs on three walks, an error, and a wild pitch, and sophomore Dan Feldman gave up the last two in the eighth on four hits. Knox could only muster three runs, a bases-loaded walk in the second, an RBI single by senior Luke Hunter in the fifth, and another RBI single by sophomore George Nicholson.
“We just didn’t hit when we needed to,” said first game starter Ball. “Little errors built up, and we couldn’t make it happen with runners in position. We had a good effort, we did pretty well in the first game, but just didn’t hit where we needed to in the second.”
Though the season has started off roughly, the liquidity of the Midwest Conference allows a team that starts streaking to jump up in the standings easily. The playoffs are still in reach as long as the team keeps it going, and starts clicking when they need to.