Grayson College has improved upon its finishes in the North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference baseball race every season in this decade. In 2013, it finally culminated with an outright regular-season championship.

Grayson College has improved upon its finishes in the North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference baseball race every season in this decade. In 2013, it finally culminated with an outright regular-season championship.


Now head coach Dusty Hart is eager to see the Vikings take one more step: A return to the JUCO World Series and a chance at winning a fourth national title.


The Vikings rolled to the conference crown last spring with a 24-8 record and finished 40-18 overall, outdistancing runner-up Temple College by three games. That was after finishing fourth in the conference in 2010, third in 2011, and tying for first in 2012 but receiving the No. 2 seed on a tiebreaker.


Then they nearly pulled off a miraculous comeback in the loser’s bracket of the NJCAA Region V tournament in Grand Prairie, but lost to Midland College in the championship game, just shy of another trip to Grand Junction, Colo.


"We needed one more," Hart said. "Two of our pitchers got hurt right before the tournament, and if we’d been healthy we might’ve pulled it off. We had to bring our Game 1 starter back on three days’ rest, and he didn’t have any gas in the tank. In 14 years only one team has lost the first game (in the regional) and come back to win the whole thing, and that was us in 2003."


Grayson last appeared in the JUCO World Series in 2011, going two-and-out after twice losing eighth-inning leads.


The Vikings open the 2014 season this weekend with a home-and-home series against Paris Junior College. The Vikings will host Paris at 2 p.m. today at Dub Hayes Field, then will travel to Paris for a noon doubleheader on Saturday.


Once again, Grayson is highly thought-of in the juco ranks. The Vikings are ranked No. 2 by Perfect Game USA and No. 3 by the NJCAA in preseason polls.


"It’s humbling in a way, but a lot of people who vote don’t see us play," Hart said. "It’s a testament to those who’ve played here before. People have respect for our program nationwide."


And with good reason. The Vikings welcome back three first-team all-NTJCAC sophomores. Sherman’s Chris Gittens, who next year will play for Arkansas-Little Rock, will be a starting pitcher and will play first base when not on the mound, while Zach Reding and Matt McLean both return in the outfield.


Other returnees include Austin Krajnak in the outfield, Trey Rodriguez at second base, and James Gillean at shortstop. Krajnak missed the regional with an injury, and Gillean became a starter toward the end of the season after being used mainly as a late-game defensive replacement.


"You’ve got to feel good having six guys who know what’s like to win (40) games," Hart said. "We got some experience, and we got a sour taste in our mouth from last year. They know how that felt."


Joining the returning sextet are a pair of transfers from Arkansas who will make a huge impact. Willie Schwanke, who starred in high school for Frisco Wakeland, will be a starting pitcher and will play third base when not pitching. His battery mate with the Razorbacks, Gene Ramirez, joins him at Grayson and will catch.


"Willie and Chris are our two best pitchers, and they play positions when not pitching," Hart said. "You don’t see that very often at our level."


However, Gittens is recovering from the flu, and Schwanke is playing his way back into shape after a broken toe in the offseason. That means Landon Wilson, a lefthander out of Melissa, will probably be today’s opening-day starter and Schwanke will be available as a closer.


Hart added that the Vikings still have to find a fourth starting pitcher before NTJCAC play opens March 5 at Cisco College. By that time, the first three spots should be settled with Gittens, Schwanke and Wilson.


In many years, the talent-rich Vikings have been depleted by the Major League Baseball first-year player draft. They did lose one key freshman when third baseman Cody Gunter was chosen by the Washington Nationals last June, but Hart hopes the Vikings have balanced it out with the addition of Schwanke.


"We’ve replaced Cody with Willie, and that’s about as good as you can replace a third-round draft pick," Hart said. "He’s still hard to replace."