It started again, as it always does; whispers in the dead of winter. As the month of February wore on, the sightings and sounds were everywhere, as young men walked to the south of campus, athletic bags in hand, and the ring of metal on rawhide could be heard in the fieldhouse. And soon, it will arrive in its full glory, as its true potential is found.
Yes, baseball season, that most wonderful time of year, is upon us again, as Knox’s boys of summer (or more accurately, spring) take again to the diamond at Blodgett Field to defend their 2008 Midwest Conference crown. Though they are the defending champs, the Prairie Fire are none too sated with last year’s win.
“Our goal every year is to be Midwest Conference champs,” Knox coach Jami Isaacson said. “We were lucky and fortunate enough and worked hard and got that done last year, and our goal is to go to the national regional and rather than go two and out, see if we can get a ‘W’.”
Isaacson, a three-time winner of the MWC Coach of the Year including the 2008 award, has made sure his team is not one to bow to pressure, despite their losses to graduation and what the other teams in the conference now know they can do.
“Pressure is what you put on yourself,” he said, “We’ve worked hard now for five straight weeks, and we’ll see where it goes from there.’
The Prairie Fire’s most damaging losses come at the heart of the order; Luke Hunter, Greg Leibach, and MWC Southern Division Player of the Year Paul Bennett were all graduating seniors last year.
These men accounted for 69 of the teams 167 RBI’s last year, and 79 of the teams 200 total runs. They also were top three in batting average for players with more than 50 at bats, with Bennett leading the pack at .375, Leibach at .335, and Hunter hitting .308.
“Offensively, if you asked me right now, yeah, we are going to be different,” Isaacson said. “What are we going to be like, I don’t know yet. Arizona’s going to give us a lot of answers.”
Though they are losing the pop in the middle of the order, Knox has two young phenoms returning to the mound in sophomores Jordan Ball and Colin Davis, both now with a year and a conference title under their belt, seasoned veterans if ever there were. An opening season like this could have an effect on a young player, but these men are iron-willed.
“It’s some big shoes to fill,” Ball said. “But we expect it out of ourselves, it’s not really an expectation put on us.”
Ball led the team in innings pitched last year with 71, and despite a misleading 1-7 record, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 2 to 1, while finishing the year with an ERA of 3.93 while pitching two complete games.
Davis, named First Team All-Conference, finished with a 4-3 record and an ERA of 3.95. Senior Sam Almohandis went 3-3 with an ERA of 3.53 to lead the team and was second in voting for MWC Pitcher of the Year.
“It’s a matter of stepping up even higher than we all did last year,” Davis said. “Individually, [Ball] and I have good-sized targets on our backs and we know it. But there are eight other guys on our pitching staff that have that same target on their backs. And 22 more on the field with us that do, too. Now we all just have to guard our teammates’ targets and stay on the offensive.”
About the offensive loss, Ball said, “We… know that we lost them, but we’re not going to dwell on it. We’re going to try to push each other.”
Last year, the entire Southern Division finished the season with identical records of 6-6, and Knox’s play down the stretch gave it the championship. This year, the MWC coaches’ poll puts Knox at fourth in the division, despite their status as defending champions.
“Because of the way our conference is set up, it’s brutal, we all know each other so well,” said Isaacson. “Nine-inning double-headers, it is extremely difficult to just take it and run. For about a four or five year span Monmouth did that, but everybody is at Monmouth’s level now. I know who we are, and we pitch it, and field it pretty well, and run like the wind.”
As is the way with collegiate sport teams, there is a constant influx of new talent to refresh the roster, and Knox is no different, as a few new faces add excitement to what Isaacson hopes to accomplish.
“David Jewell and Dexter Brown right now are two guys that are going to get a lot of playing time off the top, and Adam Mize is pretty close as well,” Isaacson said. “David Jewell is game ready, and we knew that coming in. He’s our backup catcher right now to George Nicholson, and he’s going to get a lot of playing time in the outfield and at DH.”
All freshmen, Mize also adds some depth to the infield, while Brown is slated as an outfielder.
Spring dawning gives new hope to all, and the Prairie Fire baseball team is no different, as a repeat is in the realm of possibility.
Baseball is a great equalizer, as last year showed, so the Prairie Fire look to once again make some noise in the Midwest Conference, and keep the name of Knox in people’s ears and in their minds.
The team begins their defense of the MWC crown on Sat., March 28, at 12 p.m. when they host the Blue Boys of Illinois College.