Earlier this week, the Angelina College baseball clubhouse was buzzing with activity. Players and coaches were sorting and stacking uniforms, while others were outside spreading the tarp across the infield. Just outside, hitters were pinging balls around in the batting cages. A couple of players were wiping down bats or gloves.
Yes, the pitchers and catchers reported weeks ago. The team is revving up for the real deal.
The Roadrunners will open their 2020 campaign with a home doubleheader on Saturday against Blinn College. AC returns several key members of last year’s club – including JUCO All-Stars Drew Shifflet, Wes Gafford, Sawyre Thornhill, Dalton Roblin, JoJo Munoz and Eric Worden – along with a mix of transfers and incoming freshmen.
The combination of old and new players has head coach Jeff Livin – who won his 750th game in 2019 – eager to see what his team can do in real game situations. What better way to find out than facing a Blinn College team responsible for ending AC’s 2019 season in the regional tournament?
“It’s kind of fun right now,” Livin said. “We’re starting the season against the team that ended our last year’s season, so maybe we can get a little payback.
“I like what we’re seeing out here. Our pitchers are throwing a lot of strikes, and we’ve got good talent on the mound. That’s what I’ve always tried to function with. The offense is coming around – we had some ups and downs in the fall as the guys were learning what we’re teaching – but we’re starting to come together, and it looks like a solid team.”
One major addition to the team was assistant coach Michael Barash, who came on board back in the fall. Barash hopes to lend his experience as a Division I player to the troops, especially when it comes to their approaches at the plate.
“There’s not going to be a ton of change,” Livin said. “Mike and I see eye-to-eye on what we want to do offensively, but there are different ways of approaching things, and I think that’s refreshing for the hitters, to hear a similar sermon from a different preacher, so to speak.
“The players have taken to him. Some of the points he brings up are really easy to swallow, and he communicates well with the players. I think they’ve already bought into it.”
Livin has never been one to trumpet a set rotation when it comes to his pitching staff, preferring instead to see how each pitcher develops throughout the course of the season.
“The rotation was looking good,” Livin said. “Obviously, Drew Shifflet really exploded on the scene and had a good year last year. We’ve got a cast of several characters who could jump into starting roles.”
Some of those arms include transfers Triston Dixon, Hunter Mayo, Patrick Kudelka and Nate Hardcastle, each of whom has shown signs of mowing through some innings. Projected starter Wes Gafford will miss a few weeks after an injury, but he’ll be expected to take up where he left off after a solid 2019 season. Roblin took over the closer role late in ’19 and is expected to shut down those late innings.
“As far as the front and back end of our rotation, we’ve got some good options,” Livin said. “There are some very talented players in-between, and we usually have a few guys step up and take over in spots they weren’t projected to early.”
Offensively, there’ll be some pop to go with a steady stream of contact hitters. Livin said Roblin also will see time at first base – “His bat has really come alive” – when he’s not on the mound. The speedy MacRae Kendrick likely will hit leadoff; Sawyre Thornhill likely will anchor the shortstop position while spraying line drives all over the outfield; and the rest of the lineup likely will alternate somewhat as players settle into the season.
“We have projected starters for Day One, but there could be a lot of shuffling in this lineup as we go along,” Livin said.
One spot certainly featuring new faces is behind the plate. The Roadrunners were fortunate to have two Division I catchers in 2019, a factor Livin understands is difficult to duplicate.
“It’s going to be hard to replace those guys for sure,” Livin said. “Ethan Jacobs saw some time back there last year, and Josh Youngblood is a great athlete who’s moving from shortstop to catcher. Mitchell Breaux has some really good catch-and-throw skills, so he’s going to helps us out quite a bit.”
The team is in place and ready to roll, but Livin pointed out there’ll be no sense of satisfaction this early in a new season.
“We’re solid, but we need to be great,” Livin said. “We’re always striving to take this program to the first postseason and beyond. If things come together, this team’s certainly got a chance.
“The tools are there, and we’re happy with them.”
The ‘Runners face Blinn College in a Saturday doubleheader starting at 2 p.m. at Roadrunner Field. Shifflet will get the starting nod in the opener, and Mayo will take the bump to start the nightcap.
Admission to the game is free. Fans can follow the action on Game Changer by searching for “Angelina College Varsity 2020.”