The Grayson College Vikings are in a little bit of a slump. It’s not at the plate or on the mound but based off the program’s lofty expectations.
While the Vikes continue to produce strong regular-season records, finish at or near the top of the conference and qualify for the Region V Tournament, it has been what qualifies as a drought when it comes to reaching the Junior College World Series.
The Vikings have not made it back to Grand Junction since 2011, a span of seven seasons and counting, that is the longest — by four years — since the program’s first trip in 1998.
“We’re just as hungry as we’ve ever been. We haven’t been able to break through,” Grayson head coach Dusty Hart said. “Our goal is to get to Grand Junction every single year. We’ve been approaching it like that every season.”
The group hoping to end the streak gets things going as Grayson opens the season by hosting Seminole State at 2 p.m. today at Dub Hayes Field.
“We’re really young this year so we might have to take some bumps and bruises early on,” Hart said.
The Vikings went 39-17, the eighth straight season with at least 37 wins, finished third in the North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference standings and made the Region V Tournament quarterfinals last spring.
Among the spots in the lineup needing to be filled include the graduation of first baseman Andrew Miller, who was a National Junior College Athletic Association Division I Third-Team All-American after hitting .422 with 16 homers and 62 RBI, as well as first-team all-conference selections third baseman Jackson Glenn, shortstop Ricky Martinez and outfielder Clayton Rasbeary.
Only two of the seven Vikings with at least 150 at-bats are back.
Brandon Talley, who was an all-conference outfielder last season, hit .364 with a team-leading 20 doubles, tied for the lead with 16 home runs and was second with 69 RBI. He will move to first base this year.
“He’s probably more of a first baseman but he did a good job when we put him in the outfield,” Hart said.
Catcher Cordell Dunn Jr. batted .303 with nine doubles, seven home runs and 38 RBI. He split time behind the plate with Jarrett Gonzales, who hit .286 with two homers and 12 RBI in 84 at-bats.
Grayson does get back Braydon Webb, who was forced to redshirt after three homers and eight RBI in 11 games before getting hurt.
“Those four guys, we’re really going to have to lean on them,” Hart said.
Webb will be either in center field, at shortstop, third base or second base and the versatility of the roster will shape the lineup.
In the outfield, Will Quillen arrives after helping Southlake Carroll win the Class 6A state title and can play any of the three spots. Kade Self is a converted catcher while Riley McKinney and Hayden Houser, a transfer from San Jose State, are in the mix as well.
Blake Rambusch gets the initial nod at shortstop.
“He’s got the chance to get recruited to a really good school,” Hart said.
Wade Elliott and Josh Rodriguez are among the infielders vying for playing time depending on the defensive alignment. They can both fit at either spot on the left side of the infield or second base.
“We’re going to jump off the edge of the pool with probably 15 different lineups to figure it out,” Hart said. “That’s a nice thing about this group. There’s four or five guys who can play a lot of different places.”
Self and Omar Cervantes are in line for at-bats at designated hitter.
On the pitching staff, Grayson lost first-team all-conference hurler Zach Phillips, who was 10-1 with a 2.70 earned run average in a team-high 70 innings with 77 strikeouts, Slater Foust, who was second in innings with 43, had four wins and a 3.77 ERA, and closer Taylor Floyd.
Seven Vikings threw at least 32 innings and only two of them return. Leading the way will be lefty Nathan Hawkins, who was 5-0 with a save and a 1.64 ERA along with 55 strikeouts in 38.1 innings.
“From top to bottom we have a lot of depth — 16-18 guys who can run it up to 90 (miles per hour),” Hart said. “I feel like we have a chance to be special on the mound.”
Another lefty, T.J. Mullins, went 6-2 with a save and a 3.93 ERA in 36.2 innings.
“He’s made huge strides,” Hart said. “He came in at 84, 86, touching 88 and now he’s 88-90. You like to see that progression.”
Ryan Rickett could lead the rotation after transferring from Missouri.
“He was up to 95 this fall,” Hart said. “He’s probably been our biggest attraction in terms of scouts.”
Others in the fight for time on the mound include Nathan Artt, who stands a towering six-foot-seven, Braden Carmichael and Cole Canuteson as well as returners Oliver Howitt and and Jeff Wilson.
The Vikings are picked to finish second in the conference behind McLennan, but before getting to NTJCAC play — which starts on March 6 — the schedule includes match-ups against Navarro, Galveston, Northeast Texas and Howard as well as a road swing south this weekend to face San Jacinto, Baton Rouge, Odessa and Alvin.
“I like to challenge our guys,” Hart said. “There’s so much parity and so many good teams that you’ve got to be ready to go. If you want to be national champions, you have to be prepared under duress.”