Sports / The Prairie Fire / March 8, 2017

Baseball comes out swinging

Senior pitcher Alec Jordan goes out to meet senior outfielder Drake Sykes to celebrate a victory last season. Jordan broke the Knox College record for strikeouts in a career with 150 and was just one strikeout shy of tying the school record for strikeouts in a single season. Sykes, the reigning Midwest Conference South Player of the Year, led the nation with a .487 Batting Average last season. Jordan and Sykes are part of the strong experienced core that will lead the team with lofty goals this season. (Photo courtesy of Office of Communications)

The Knox Baseball team started their season with a bang last Saturday, defeating opponent Robert Morris University-Springfield in both games of a doubleheader by scores of 20-4 and 15-3. Knox led throughout the entirety of both games, running up to huge leads in both games before allowing their opponent to score.

Senior Pitcher Alec Jordan started the first game, throwing five shutout innings and racking up seven strikeouts.

Last season, Jordan was the team’s most dependable starting pitcher, appearing in 11 games and posting a 3.45 Earned Run Average.

Last season was also historic for Jordan, as he broke the Knox record for career strikeouts, now sitting at 150 total strikeouts. Last season, he came just one strikeout short at 61 of the single-season Knox record.

Between the two games, senior Drake Sykes went 6-7, driving in nine runs on three doubles and a home run. For his efforts, Sykes was named the Midwest Conference Performer of the Week, closing out a strong opening week of the season.

A season ago, Sykes led the country with his .487 Batting Average on his way to winning the Midwest Conference South Player of the Year award.

Freshman Juston Woodard, in his first ever college at-bat, sent a homerun over the outfield fence.

Senior Ryan Weitendorf walked six times, scored five runs and batted in two more in the doubleheader, picking up where he left off last season.

Junior Matt McCaffrey, an All-Conference selection a year ago, also scored five runs and batted in two more.

Sophomore Tristyn Ruiz reached base on seven of his nine at bats, scoring five runs, driving in four more and stealing three bases.

Freshman Trevan Lowtharp started the second game, going three innings and only allowing one earned run while striking out three batters.

Jordan already sees a difference between this year’s squad and the one that finished with a 12-22 record last season.

“We got a little uptight at times last season which sometimes cost us at points. This year we’ve had a lot more of a laid back mentality with the realization that this is still just a game and we should go out and have fun,” Jordan said.

Assistant Coach James Clark also thinks this team will learn from last season, saying, “I think finishing strong last year really helped us take a winning mindset into the games. Our guys had fun and enjoyed the games, but also stayed focused throughout.”

Jordan and McCaffrey credit the strong start in large part to some changes in the team’s offseason preparations.

Jordan pointed to new pitching coach Nick Milligan bringing a new regimen for the pitchers in preparation for the season as a big reason the team will be more successful this season.

“He’s increased our focus on conditioning so we can stay in games into later innings,” Jordan said.

McCaffrey agreed, saying, “The work that our pitchers have been doing will pay off in the long run. They have really been busting their butts getting in shape and getting their legs under them.”

Jordan also added that the team has taken a new level of dedication to the game’s fundamentals in an effort to make sure that they “could literally do it blindfolded and backwards.”

This doubleheader serves as the team’s warm-up before they travel on their annual spring break Florida tournament trip.

Head Coach Jami Isaacson thinks the team will be able to compete against much stronger teams during their trip to the tournament in Florida, which will give the team a better indication of how they will perform against their rival teams in the Midwest Conference later on in the season.

“The competition will be very good in Florida. How we react to the ebb and flow of the game will be telling because there will be successes and there will be failures. We did not really have to deal with any failure [in the doubleheader]. I expect us to compete at a very high level,” Isaacson said.

The Florida trip is a great time for the entire team to bond, also giving every player a chance to get some playing time. The strong core of seniors have also served as mentors and leaders for the younger players, trying to impart knowledge on them to help improve the Knox Baseball program as a whole.

“We try to give the mentality to the younger guys that this is work. You are going to come out here and have to work really hard but you will enjoy it,” Jordan said.

Clark thinks the team is in a good position to do a lot of damage to their conference opponents this season, returning nearly the entire team from last season.

“We have a great group of guys and we are older this year with many of our seniors being four-year starters for us. Experience wins games and we have a lot of experience,” Clark said.

Jordan also feels confident in the team’s chances to make some noise in the conference this season, noting that many of the other team’s in the conference lost multiple key seniors from a season ago.

However, the players know they still have a lot of work to do, with McCaffrey saying that they still have “many areas to improve upon.”

Jordan agrees, stating the importance of going out to play with a focused mindset in each game.

We still can’t underestimate any team we face. Our approach has to be to take it literally inning by inning and roll with each pitch.

Isaacson has high expectations for this team, though he admits he expects a lot from his team every year. Citing the team’s depth and the sense of urgency among the players to succeed, Isaacson believes that this team could perform very well against their conference foes this season if they continue to work hard.

McCaffrey recognizes the fact that the team will lose many key players to graduation this year, which has added to his desire to win this season.

“We believe we’re the best team every time we step on the field. We’re extremely confident in our ability this year. We shouldn’t be overmatched in Florida and certainly not in the Midwest Conference,” McCaffrey said.

As for personal accomplishments, this team seems fully dedicated to team accolades over personal ones. Though he has a strong chance to break the Knox record for strikeouts in a single season while also pushing his record career numbers higher, Jordan does not hesitate to state his preference of seeing the team win over collecting personal awards.

“I am just focused on going out on the mound and doing what I can to try to help the team get W’s,” Jordan said.

This team is not dwelling on their successful start to the season, as they already look forward towards accomplishing their larger goals.

“We care about winning a conference championship, not beating Robert Morris on March 5,” McCaffrey said.

Jonathan Schrag, Managing Editor
Jonathan Schrag is a junior majoring in Political Science and double minoring in Educational Policy Studies and History. He has been writing for TKS since Fall Term of his freshman year and has contributed to News, Sports and Discourse. He served as the Sports editor during his sophomore year and has won several awards from the Illinois Collegiate Press Association.

Tags:  alec jordan drake sykes James Clark Jami Isaacson juston woodard knox baseball matt mccaffrey nick milligan ryan weitendorf trevan lowtharp tristyn ruiz

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