The Grayson College Vikings were just a couple of victories from making a return to the Junior College World Series. Since the program has been a national power for the past couple of decades, this was not exactly a surprise.
Grayson will look to continue that tradition with a core disappointed by falling just short of its goal as well as newcomers looking to provide the production over the course of what is expected to be another successful campaign.
The road to an eighth World Series appearance — which would come on the 10-year anniversary of the program’s last national championship — starts as the Vikings host Navarro at 2 p.m. on Monday afternoon.
There is a reason for the lofty expectations as the team chases the fourth title in school history.
“I feel like we’re in pretty good shape. Everybody’s healthy so that’s something,” Grayson head coach Dusty Hart said. “We have 20 sophomores on the roster; you hope that experience helps. Last year we were one or two wins from going to Grand Junction. I did think our youth caught up with us in the regional.”
Last year Grayson went 37-14 and was the runner-up in the North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference standings. It was the seventh straight year the Vikings were either the conference champ or the runner-up and the ensuing run the Region 5 Tournament semifinals, where it was eliminated by eventual champion McLennan, was the best effort since 2014.
As with any strong program, the Vikings lost some key players to the next level — including Tyler Ivey, who was the conference’s Pitcher of the Year and signed with the Houston Astros, Seth Mullis, a second-team all-conference pick at designated hitter who led the Vikings with a .355 average, 10 home runs and 44 RBI, and shortstop Mark Gottsacker, who was second with a .337 average.
But the core ready to take the field has some strong credentials. Left fielder Ryne Randle has signed with Abilene Christian, third baseman Jackson Glenn is headed to Dallas Baptist, infielder Ricky Martinez is headed to Tennessee and the pitching staff has Taylor Floyd (Texas Tech), Zach Phillips (Ole Miss), Spencer Hynes (Houston) and Braxton Webb (Oklahoma) all signed with Division I programs.
“I don’t see any major weakness,” Hart said. “I think we’ll be good defensively, we can pitch and we can hit a little.”
The pitching staff was almost entirely new last season so having most of the group back makes it easier for Hart to know which roles they fit well.
“I think there’s no question depth is a part of our strength is on the mound,” Hart said. “I don’t know if we have that dynamic No. 1 but there’s four or five guys that could start Game 1 of the season for us.”
Floyd was a first-team all-conference selection at relief pitcher. He was 2-3 with 16 saves and a 1.59 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 51 innings.
Landon Staats was 6-2 with a 4.65 ERA, Webb was 5-2 with a 5.37 ERA and Hynes was 4-2 with a 5.85 ERA. Also in the mix is Gabe Constantine, who transferred from Wichita State before last season and threw just 10 innings before suffering an injury.
Newcomers Nathan Hawkins, a left transfer from Wichita State, and J.J. Montenegro are expected to contribute as well.
Andrew Miller and Anthony Bernardez shared time at first base last season and Princeton native Brandon Talley, who transferred from Louisiana-Lafayette, is battling for at-bats. Miller hit .293 with four home runs and a team-high 16 doubles and was second on the team with 37 RBI while Bernardez was at .303 with a pair of homers and 12 RBI in 99 at-bats.
Martinez, who transferred from Sacramento State, takes over at shortstop and Ty Jones will shift to second base after hitting .324 last season. Brandon Pruitt could fill in at either spot.
“There’s not many years I’ve had three guys I could play shortstop and not be worried,” Hart said. “We’ll have a pretty good little rotation going.”
Glenn, who hit .294 with five homers and 28 RBI, is back at third and catcher will be between Cordell Dunn, Jarrett Gonzales and Josh Aguilar, who transferred from Louisiana Tech.
Outfield will have the most new faces with Randle, who batted .300, getting even more playing time in left this season and Braydon Webb moving from the infield to center. Right field is down to Clayton Rasbeary, J.T. Morgan and Jared Viracola.
“Pretty much all of the outfielders will see time,” Hart said.
The team will open NTJCAC play on March 7 with a double-header at Vernon.
“Looking at the polls, there are three teams from the league in the top 25. If it’s not the strongest league or conference in the country, someone else must be really, really good,” Hart said. “Our non-conference schedule is usually pretty good. We want to see what our strengths and weaknesses are before we get to the ones that count.”