“Better than last year” is the common refrain on the Blodgett baseball diamond this season. It might not sound like a particularly difficult thing to do, given that the team went 9-27 last season, including a 3-13 record in the Midwest Conference. Given their difficulties last season, few on the team were particularly surprised that fellow MWC coaches predicted the Prairie Fire to bottom out the conference this year.
“It’s the same thing we dealt with last year,” junior Alec Jordan said. “But we aren’t worried. It’s a way to put less stress on ourselves. We all want to compete every day; now there’s just less pressure on us to do so. It makes us work like no one has ever worked before so that we can stick it to the coaches who said we couldn’t.”
Still, matching even nine wins could prove difficult on a roster that features 18 freshmen, seven sophomores, seven juniors and only one senior (a pattern becoming increasingly common in Knox sports). Experience is especially vital in the college game, which is markedly different from high school. Nonetheless, players aren’t worried about what the youth will do.
“The junior class has stepped up and done a lot of the things a senior class normally would,” said junior Drake Sykes. “Not only has that helped the juniors grow, but it has also showed the young guys that you don’t need to be a senior to make a difference on the team.”
Sykes will undeniably be a big part of any success the Prairie Fire find this season. Sykes hauled in the hardware over the offseason, earning a spot on the ABCA/Rawlings DIII All-Central Region first team, the D3baseball All-Central Region second team and the All-MWC South Division first team. The accolades came after a season in which Sykes led the MWC in batting average at .432, becoming the first Knox everyday player to hit over .400 since 2009. Sykes also set new single season Knox records for hits (60) and total bases (92). Sykes, Jordan, sophomore Matt McCaffrey and the sole senior on the team, Marty Salazar, have taken leadership roles to encourage and motivate the younger players. Salazar is hoping his experience and consistency will help the younger players grow.
“I know my role on this team,” said Salazar. “I need to be consistent and strong within my role of being a reliable arm out of the bullpen. I see myself as another pitching coach on the field. I can help with mental preparation, mechanics and the mindset of pitching at the college level.”
Freshman Billy Ballantine noted that Head Coach Jami Isaacson has intentionally kept roles vague, in the hopes that it will cause the freshmen to come motivated every day. The team, like several others on campus, appears to be orienting itself more toward long-term success, recruiting large numbers and allowing underclassmen to get more playing time than one would initially expect. Salazar, now in his fourth preseason, has noticed Isaacson being a bit tougher on the freshmen, cognizant of the fact that they’ll see increased playing time. Still, the team seems to have confidence in young arms and old.
“Our pitching staff is much improved from last year,” Sykes said. “More importantly than that, though, is the confidence. If something goes wrong, this team won’t shut down. Instead, failure will drive us to succeed; we have confidence in one another and what we can do.”
The team chemistry took a while to get going; Sykes described the chemistry as “questionable at first,” while Jordan said chemistry was “rocky in the fall.” Since then, the team has quickly bonded both on and off the field, such that Salazar described this team as closer to the 2013, record-setting team than any other team he’s been on.
“This team is more than a family than any other team I’ve been on,” said Salazar. “We’re 100 percent there for each other both on and off the field, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
After Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to MacMurray, the Prairie Fire next play in an annual tournament in Florida over spring break. Upon their return, the team will play in five straight home games to get the season underway.
“I love home games,” said Jordan. “But the young guys are gonna be worn down by the end of our schedule with all the road games at the end. If we get a good start, though, the momentum should hopefully carry us.”
Sykes, meanwhile, was slightly more optimistic.
“The warm weather has allowed us to hit the field a couple times already,” Sykes said. “And the five home games will help the young guys get a feel for how our field plays and what’s going to happen situationally. Coming back from some tough road games, hopefully we’ll have learned how to win.”