Coming off their best regular season in five years, the Grayson College Vikings are more worried about producing once they get into the playoff portion of the schedule.
The program’s 42-14 record matched the 2014 squad and Grayson ended up as the North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference champ after McLennan was forced to forfeit four games. After moving up from the second seed for the Region V Tournament, the Vikings won their opener but then dropped the next two, including one against eventual champ New Mexico Junior College, to be eliminated.
“That’s the thing about our region — all eight teams there have a chance to win. it takes a special group of guys to get over that hump,” Grayson head coach Dusty Hart said. “Every coach in our league does a good job of getting after it. The talent level is pretty much evened out.”
With some key pieces returning, the Vikings start their trek to get back to the Junior College World Series for the first time in nearly a decade by hosting Seminole State for a non-conference double-header at noon on Saturday at Dub Hayes Field.
“We feel pretty good about the personnel. It might take us a little bit to get going,” Hart said. “We’ve got a lot of sophomores — both position players and pitchers. That will come in handy.”
Among the spots in the lineup needing to be filled include the graduation of second baseman Braydon Webb, who led the team with a .450 average and 25 doubles to go with 14 homers and 66 RBI, catcher Cordell Dunn Jr., who hit .386 with 12 homers and 74 RBI, third baseman Jarrett Gonzales, who sported a .310 average with seven homers and 35 RBI and first baseman Brandon Talley, who batted .353 and led the team with 15 homers and 76 RBI.
That quartet were all first-team all-conference selections — Dunn, Webb and Talley were also chosen all-region and Webb, who signed with Arkansas, was a first-team All-American — and had the most at-bats on the roster.
“Those four guys are irreplaceable. I feel like we replaced the lineup as best we could,” Hart said. “Webb’s a generational guy in this league. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the Newcomer of the Year in the SEC.”
But the Vikings do have some bats they can lean on.
Will Quillen was a first-team all-conference pick after hitting .351 with three homers and 40 RBI and starts in right field.
Blake Rambusch is back after he hit .333 with four homers and 46 RBI but instead of being at shortstop he will be confined to designated hitter because a torn right labrum will keep him out of the field for the foreseeable future.
Freshmen Davis Powell and Brandon Gonzales get the first cracks at short while Rambusch recovers.
Brandon Pruitt, who has signed with Sam Houston State, missed all of last season with an injury after starting as a freshman. Along with Wade Elliott, who came off the bench last spring, and newcomer Cade Webber, Pruitt will be part of an infield rotation.
“Those three guys will be in a mixture of second base and third base,” Hart said. “All those guys are going to play. They’ll battle it out.”
Taking over at catcher is Taylor Smith, who hit .322 with 16 homers and 57 RBI as a NCBWA Freshman All-American at Incarnate Word.
Adam Becker transferred from Oklahoma State and will man first base.
There will also be a pair of Division I transfers in the outfield. Devin Warner comes from Auburn, where he played in 10 games during the Tigers’ run to the College World Series, and will see time in left and center while Jordan Thompson, who spent much of last season injured at Incarnate Word, gets the opening nod in center.
Riley McKinney returns and Nick Vernars is also an outfield option.
“I feel very comfortable with the depth of our lineup,” Hart said. “They’re very interchangeable. One of the things we don’t necessarily have a lot this year is team speed. We’ll have to figure out how to score runs when we don’t hit.”
Leading the pitching staff is Braden Carmichael, a second-team All-American who also earned all-region and first-team all-conference accolades. He was 10-1 with a 2.59 earned run average and 104 strikeouts in 80 innings.
“You couldn’t ask for a better guy to be the horse,” Hart said. “He definitely sets a good example for the rest of the guys.”
Rorik Maltrud was second-team all-conference after posting a 7-0 mark with a 4.33 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 60.1 innings.
Steve Hayward was named second-team all-conference after saving six games to go with a 3.12 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 26 innings.
The Vikings also bring back Cole Canuteson, who was third on the team in innings at 54.1 and was 4-2 with a 4.80 ERA and 54 strikeouts while another starter, Chase Van Dyk, supplied 33 innings.
“That doesn’t happen very often. I can’t remember the last time we had all four conference starters back,” Hart said. “That’s definitely exciting.”
Grayson did lose Jeff Wilson and T.J. Mullins, who each went 6-1, to graduation and Ryan Rickett threw just five innings before getting injured and then transferring to Rice.
Others in the fight for time on the mound include Nathan Artt, who made just six appearances (eight innings) because of an injury, a trio of transfers in Shay Hartis (Dallas Baptist), Kaden Krowka (Oklahoma State) and Justin Barnes (Louisiana-Lafayette) and two high school hurlers who were committed to Big 12 programs in Garrett Gearner (Oklahoma) and Gunner Morris (Texas Tech).
“We’ve got a lot of intriguing arms,” Hart said. “I hope everybody throws well and everybody’s healthy.”
The Vikings are once again picked to finish second in the conference behind McLennan when NTJCAC play begins on March 11.
“We’re right there, just like always,” Hart said. “So many things have to go right. You need some balls to go your way, some calls to go your way.
“That’s the goal of this program, to win the whole thing. That’s never going to change.”