Release Date: 2/8/1999
Clarksville, Ark. --- University of the Ozarks baseball coach Bill Mueller and his team learned a hard lesson last year and they are determined to put that painful experience to good use this year.
The Eagles, who open the 1999 season at home Friday against Southern Arkansas University, got off to a rocky 0-16 start last year under their first-year head coach. However, they did rebound to win eight of their last 19 games, and barely missed making the American Southwest Conference postseason tournament.
"We had a lot of young players last year and the way we started out really woke some of them up about what it takes to compete in college," said Mueller, a former Indiana University assistant coach. "I think the positive thing about the entire experience was that we kept working hard and we started having success at the end of the year. That carried over into the offseason and into this preseason. Our players have worked extremely hard to get ready for this year. They don't want the same thing to happen again."
Though this year's version of the Eagles will have just one senior and one junior among its top 23 players, Mueller expects them to be stronger defensively and in the pitching department, where the team ERA was an astronomical 10.04 last year. Offensively, Mueller believes the potential is there for the Eagles to improve on their .284 team batting average and five-runs per game average.
"This year we've got better athletes overall. They can run faster, they're stronger and bigger," he said. "We don't have the experience we had last year, but these players have the potential to be better players. They just need the college experience, and a lot of them got that last year."
The Eagles return a strong nucleus from last year's 8-27 season, including five position starters. Leading the returnees are a trio of sophomore infielders: first baseman Rusty Gregory of Morrilton (.343, 19 RBIs), third baseman Patrick Prater of North Little Rock (.333, 16 RBIs) and second baseman Chance Lawless of Rattan, Okla. (.265, 15 RBIs). Freshman Ca'Lyn Zachary of Morrilton is expected to take over the shortstop duties, while infield depth will be provided by Eric Hipp, J.R. Cook, Cody Gebhart and Eric Parker. The catching chores will be handled by freshmen Alan Garrison of Alma and Jeremiah Woehl of Valley Springs.
The outfielders include three-year starter Lee Beshoner (.277) in left and returning starter Kevin Duncan (.222, 2 HRs) in center. The other outfield spot will be up for grabs, with Parker, Shawn Adams, Mark King, Terry Tice and Mason Gobert battling for playing time.
The returning pitchers include senior Bo Funderburk (1-4, 10.44 ERA) and Prater (2-3, 9.99 ERA). A strong recruiting emphasis on pitching should bring immediate help in the form of 6-foot-4 freshmen right-handers Andy Tasker and Justin Dixon, along with Shane Norrid, Nick Yount, Tice and Parker.
"We feel like we improved our pitching staff, it's just a matter of how quickly the young players can adjust to college baseball," Mueller said. "I think we have more depth this year, but the question is the quality. We have some people we can bring in for relief, but our starters must give us five or six solid innings a game this year."
The Eagles were picked third in the ASC East Division preseason poll. The top two teams in the division advance to the ASC Tournament.
"One of our goals this year is to make the tournament and that is well within our reach," Mueller said. "We were one win away last year, and if we get some guys to step up and continue to improve we should make it to the tournament. And once you make the conference tournament, you're just one good weekend away from playing in the national tournament."
The Eagles' non-conference schedule includes home-and-home games with Arkansas Tech (Feb. 23 in Russellville and March 2 in Clarksville).