By Russell Moore
FOR THE TIMES
Wallace State baseball coach Randy Putman imagines his sophomores will be motivated from February to May to eliminate the bitter feeling they experienced last season in the state tournament championship, when the Lions finished as runners-up and just two wins shy of earning the program’s first NJCAA World Series berth since 2006.
“If losing in the championship game doesn’t make them hungry, then they don’t need to be playing the game. You play the game to go to the top and Grand Junction, Colo., is the top for us,” Putman said, whose team is opening the 2013 season this weekend in Panama City, Fla. “We came up a little short last season, but we’re excited to see what we can do this season.”
Wallace State had an incredible turnaround last season, nearly doubling its win total from 2011. The Lions finished 41-17, won a share of the ACCC Northern Division and were a top seed at the state tournament in Ozark. The Lions lost in the championship game to Shelton State.
If the Lions add one step to last year’s success, they’ll be making plans this season to spend Memorial Day weekend in Colorado.
Wallace State has a handful of things working in its favor this season, including the longevity of Putman’s career, its ace, Bret Marks, returning on the mound and a solid, returning sophomore class, many of whom made significant contributions last season.
“It’s been a few years now since we’ve experienced the thrill of winning a state title. We’ve worked hard to make sure our baseball program is on the way back up. It’s always our goal to win a state title and it’s been a few years since we’ve experienced that thrill. Once you’ve been there, it should always be your goal,” said Putman, who’s entering his 24th season with the Lions and is less than 40 wins shy of 900 career victories. “It’s something we talk about and strive for. We won’t talk about it once we start the season, but it’s the in back of our mind and something you want to accomplish.”
Marks was Wallace State’s breakout pitcher last season and was recently recognized as the ACCC Pitcher of the Year after finishing with an 11-5 record, seven saves and a 1.74 ERA, tossing five complete games in 24 appearances. Marks recorded 90 strikeouts and issued only 19 walks in 79 innings, leading all ACCC Northern Division pitchers in wins, saves, ERA and strikeouts. He was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 22nd round last June, but decided to return to Hanceville.
“Bret Marks is a competitor. When he goes to the mound, he thinks he’s the best and you’ve got to feel that way as a pitcher. He’s got a good fastball and changeup, adds a slider and doesn’t’ give in,” Putman said. “Bret reminds me of former major leaguer Kevin Brown. They’re almost a replica of each other.”
Jacob Croft also returns to the rotation after going 4-0 with a 3.05 ERA in 11 starts last season. Freshman lefty Isaac Yarbrough, a Vinemont grad, and Lawson State transfer Wes Gillespie are projected to complement Marks and Croft in the rotation.
“We think both Yarbrough and Gillespie can be big pieces of our rotation,” Putman said. “I’m also excited about our quality bullpen arms. Robby Clements, Nathan Weaver, Jeremy Melton and Brent Reeves will be some of our main relievers.”
Catcher Andrew Dennis and shortstop Nathan Vincent are back in the middle of the Wallace State lineup. Dennis finished with a team-high .368 average last season, adding 24 RBIs, while Vincent clubbed a team-high eight homers and had 30 RBIs.
Brodie Jeffery returns to patrol center field, Sawyer Williams should see notable time at first base and designated hitter and Tim Zurrer will spell Dennis behind the plate and earn time at designated hitter.
Third baseman Haydon Bogard, a California native, and outfielder Colt Buttram are freshmen expected to consistently contribute to the offense.
“Haydon Bogard is a very versatile player. He’s probably going to end up being of my favorite players here one day because he plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” Putman said.
One unknown aspect each season for Putman is when his freshman contributors will comfortably adjust to the collegiate level.
“Every year is a challenge because there’s so much turn over in junior college. It takes some time to get freshmen to understand what it takes to be successful at this level. Between (assistant coach) Adam (Scott) and I, we’re going to teach them how to be successful in this game, but the freshmen have to develop the mental toughness,” Putman said. “This game is one of peaks and valleys. When things are going good, baseball is a fun game. When things are going bad, you have to dig down deep and figure out how to handle the adversity.”
Wallace State’s home opener is Friday, Feb. 8 vs. Volunteer State.
Since 2009, Wallace State baseball has enjoyed a streak of its former players making their major league debuts, starting with Derek Holland debuting with the Texas Rangers and concluding with Jake Elmore earning a promotion last season with the Arizona Diamondbacks. In between were Craig Kimbrel with the Braves in 2010 and Graham Godfrey with the Oakland A’s in 2011. Godfrey and Elmore have since changed organizations, signed by the Red Sox and Astros respectively. Wallace State baseball has won seven ACCC state championships under Putman and made six NJCAA Division I World Series appearances.