After memorable finish to 2013 season, Eagles look to build on momentum

Jordan Lopez, the most valuable player in last year's NCCAA Central Region tournament, returns as the starting right fielder for the Eagles this season.
Jordan Lopez, the most valuable player in last year's NCCAA Central Region tournament, returns as the starting right fielder for the Eagles this season.

OKLAHOMA CITY (Feb. 12, 2014) – There’s no denying 2013 was a historic season for the Oklahoma Christian baseball program.

The Eagles recorded their most wins in a season since the program was revived in 2008, won their first postseason tournament in 41 years, reached the National Christian College Athletic Association World Series and – for the first time ever – had two players taken in the Major League Baseball draft.

As OC prepares to open its 2014 campaign on Friday against Pittsburg State (Kan.), the challenge for second-year coach Lonny Cobble is how to build on the momentum generated from the Eagles’ late-season run of success.

In 2013, OC – in its first season in the NCAA Division II Heartland Conference – earned the respect of its new league rivals and would have finished in the upper half of the conference had the Eagles’ results counted in the standings. OC finished 26-26, split with longtime Division II power St. Mary’s (Texas) and won two of three at South Central Region stalwart Texas A&M-Kingsville.

The Eagles enter this season on the radar screen, receiving votes in the preseason region poll. Cobble appreciates the respect but cautions his team has to go out and prove itself worthy.

“We’re as good as anybody we play,” Cobble said. “We want to give our best effort in those situations and see how it goes from there. We beat a lot of teams (last season) that we probably shouldn’t have beat and we lost some games we probably shouldn’t have lost, too.

“But I felt like in a year, we caught up real quick and we’ll see where this season takes us. I’ve also told people we could be better this year and have a worse record, if you could believe that, because we’re playing in the (conference) weekend series.”

Cobble must replace two of his star pitchers from last season – Cale Coshow, who was drafted by the New York Yankees after his sophomore season, and ace closer Chris Burgess, who shattered OC’s single-season and career saves record before being drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies.

Entering the season, Cobble said his weekend starters will be returnees Tyler Sturges (5-5, 3.77 ERA) and Kelby Reneau (2-4, 4.53) and newcomer Brandon Pierce, who spent time as a weekend starter at NCAA Division I Nebraska, even pitching in last season’s Big Ten Conference tournament title game. Another returnee, steady junior Luke Sandoval (5-2, 3.47) could also figure into that mix if his health allows.

There will be no shortage of arms competing for spots as midweek starters or long relievers. Returnees Tyler Schuman (0-2, 10.00), Ryan Nash (1-0, 2.64) and Kacy Cook (0-2, 6.66) will join newcomers Garrett Sumpter, Dillon Endecott and Matt Brown in that group. Brown also is a Division I transfer, from Arkansas-Little Rock.

Newcomers Dylon Sturges and Eddie Broll are two options for short relief stints, along with returnees Daniel Sawyer, Zach Loomis, Jesse Stephens and freshman lefty Joe Peregrin. Garrett Guys, who originally signed with Division I Texas A&M-Corpus Christi as a pitcher before playing first base last season at OC, also will return to the mound.

Replacing Burgess – arguably the Heartland’s best closer last season – still is a work in progress, although Guys and Endecott are two possibilities, Cobble said.

“We may not be as good on the high end, but I think we’re a better staff from top to bottom,” Cobble said. “That gives us a little more depth. It’s going to be hard to replace Burgess. … It’s going to be hard to replace Coshow. But we’ve got quality guys that I think are going to step in and fill those roles and give us a chance to win like those guys did.”

Behind the plate, Caden Cleveland (.271, 19 RBIs) started 46 games for OC last season but should see competition from Cameron Keener, a senior transfer from Division I New Orleans. Chandler Allen, who saw spot action at catcher last season, also figures to see some playing time.

Senior Blake Stringer (.280, 1 HR, 23 RBIs), who led the team in starts last season with 49, is entrenched as the starter at first base, with promising freshman Kolton Brown as his primary backup.

At second base, senior Cory Eastwood (.325, 13 RBIs) is a sure-handed fielder who was a preseason second-team all-region selection after earning all-conference second-team honors last season. Newcomer Zac Cobble, who played on Murray State’s junior-college national title-winning team last season, will be the backup.

Four players are in the mix for the other two infield spots. Seniors Garrett Stephenson (.221, 17 RBIs) and Sean Murphy (.189, 7 RBIs) held down the shortstop and third base jobs last season but will face competition from Cody Rosecrans (who missed all but 10 games last season due to injury) and yet another Division I transfer, A.J. Florence (Texas Tech). Redshirt freshmen Chase Kuwitzky and Brady Baugh will provide depth in the infield.

Heading into the season, the starting outfield jobs will be held by a trio of returnees – Caleb Price (.257, 2 HRs, 20 RBIs) in left field, Markus Carr (.295, 2 HRs, 10 RBIs, 24 stolen bases) in center field and NCCAA Central Region tournament most valuable player Jordan Lopez (.280, 3 HRs, 27 RBIs) in right field.

But like last year, there figures to be plenty of playing time for other outfielders. Tanner Hessman – who started for the Eagles during the 2012 season before transferring to Rose State – is back at OC. Two other juco transfers, Robert Rosser and Jackson Matthews, also are capable players who can push the starters. Rosser and Matthews – and perhaps Guys, despite his move to pitcher – could serve as the Eagles’ primary designated hitters.

OC’s schedule – a hodgepodge of dates last season – will be more standard this season, as the Heartland has included the Eagles in its scheduling of league series. When the regular season ends, OC again will host the NCCAA Central Region tournament, seeking a second straight trip to the national tournament.

“Expectations are high,” Cobble said. “You definitely have that as a goal, to get back to Mason, Ohio (for the NCCAA World Series) and finish better than we did last year. Last year, getting there was a big relief. This year, I think our guys are going in with the expectation of ‘Let’s try to win this thing this time.’”