2016 Baseball Preview
In his second season at the helm of the College of the Ozarks baseball program, head coach Neale Richardson and the Bobcats have their sights set on a national tournament appearance in the 2016 season. The Bobcats, led by both experienced veterans and talented youth, have a lot to look forward to this season; perhaps the most exciting part of the 2016 season is the new synthetic turf being installed at Bob Smith Field.
“The turf will be huge for weather conditions,” Richardson said, “and not losing practice time will be key for us. It will also help with recruiting and academics, as travel time should be reduced since it will be a lot easier to schedule home games.”
The Bobcats finished last season with a 23-23 record, which was their best since 2008. While they had the usual struggles associated with a young squad, the Cats also had a lot of bright spots that will help to propel their success this season.
“Last season we beat the #6 team in the nation 22-5 and played really competitively in that series,” Richardson noted. “We also played really well in the MCAC Tournament, and that confidence from last season should carry over to this year.”
The 28-man roster for the Bobcats is one of the youngest in recent memory, featuring only eight upperclassmen. The senior class is headlined by outfielder Cody Hull (Norwood, Mo.) who is coming off his career-best season, hitting .358 with 8 doubles, 8 home runs, and 38 RBI’s while earning a 1st Team All-Conference selection. Hull, besides being one of the speediest Bobcats and a gold glove defender, is also a terrific team leader. Also returning for their senior seasons are closer Jason Myers (Bolivar, Mo.) and pitcher Caleb Rowold (Piedmont, Mo.). Richardson called Myers the “bulldog” of the pitching staff, who is ready to pitch at any time. Rowold has played a number of positions for the Cats, but he has settled in nicely as a relief pitcher.
The junior class is composed of pitchers Alex Stephens (Branson, Mo.) and Garrett Woods (Republic, Mo.), catcher Winston Rasmussen (Springdale, Ark.), and outfielders Austin Schweiss (Nixa, Mo.) and Jesse Fisher (Hollister, Mo.). Stephens returns to anchor the pitching staff after posting a 5-4 record with a 3.88 ERA in nine starts. He threw four complete games, recording 36 strikeouts while only walking 14 batters. As a control pitcher who keeps the Bobcats in the game, he will be counted on to be a “big game pitcher” for the Cats this season. Woods, who looks to stay healthy following two injury-plagued seasons, hopes to be a major factor in the Bobcats’ success. Woods is very dominant when he is healthy, and the Cats are focusing on keeping him well. Rasmussen is expected to do big things this season and Coach Richardson is looking for aspects of his game to pull together. Schweiss is one of the Bobcats most consistent players and had a great sophomore season upon which to build. He finished 2015 having started 41 of 45 games for the Cats, posting a .262 batting average with a .349 on base percentage. Rounding out the junior class is Fisher, a very good outfielder that adds some punch to an already solid lineup.
The sophomore class consists of pitchers Christian Vonderheide (Shumway, Ill.), Colton Webber (Seneca, Mo), Wyatt Saltarelli (Montgomery, Texas), catcher Logan Schuh (Harrison, Ark.), infielders Tyler Whiteis (Branson, Mo.), J.D. Payne (Nixa, Mo.), Jacob Karlson (Nixa, Mo.), and outfielder J.D. Chadwell (Norwood, Mo.). The Cats also return redshirt freshman outfielder Hunter Simmons (Hartville, Mo.)
Vonderheide had a very impressive freshman campaign on the mound, finishing with a 6-3 record and a team low 3.14 ERA in 51.2 innings pitched. Hoping to stay healthy, he will look to better those numbers on the mound this season. Webber could have a major impact on the team’s success this season, based on his impressive offseason. Saltarelli is a consistent go-to reliever who fills an important role on the pitching staff and pitched well in some spot starts a year ago. Schuh, a newcomer to the Cats this season, has a very strong arm and will serve as the backup catcher while also earning some time on the mound. Tyler Whiteis, whom Richardson called the “most improved player from last season,” will bring a strong bat to the lineup. Payne, the Bobcats’ leader in RBI’s last season with 41, is a potent hitter who will be counted on to drive in even more runners this season. Karlson adds needed depth to the infield and provides solid defense, a good stick, and speed to the team in his first season. Chadwell is much improved and fighting for a starting position. He should produce power and average in the lineup as well as a tenacious base-running style. Simmons will add outfield depth and Richardson referred to his speed on the bases on as a potential game-changer.
The recruiting efforts of the Bobcats’ coaching staff brought nine freshmen signees to Point Lookout this season, making it one of the largest signing classes in recent history. This class includes a group of heralded pitchers in Ethan Whiteis (Branson, Mo.), Logan Teal (Harrisonville, Mo.), Collin Irvine (Springfield, Mo.), Collan Thrasher (Atlanta, Mo.), Drew Fitzgerald (Harrison, Ark.), infielders Hunter Humphrey (Harrison, Ark.), Kole Kelley (Pierce City, Mo.), Tad Mitchell (Rogersville, Mo.), and outfielder Isaac Norsic (Springfield, Mo.).
Redshirt freshmen and transfers Caleb Spangler (pitcher – Pittsburg, Kan.) and Dylan Heitz (catcher – Bethany, Mo.) also join the squad this season. Whiteis could be an immediate contributor to the team as a pitcher who knows how to pitch and is unflappable in big moments. Teal is a strong, hard thrower who has a bright future in the program. Richardson called Irvine a “young arm with great promise,” and he referred to Thrasher as a player who “has made great strides” in his first offseason with the Cats. Fitzgerald is a southpaw with tremendous upside and lots of potential, and Humphrey is a solid hitter who has potential to be an outstanding college hitter. Mitchell adds a steady glove and the possibility to add power and consistency to the lineup and will battle for a starting position as a freshman. Kelley and Norsic, add depth, versatility, and athleticism to the club and will find ways to contribute on the field this season. Spangler, a walk-on from Avila University, provides depth in the bullpen, while Heitz brings a remarkable arm and a powerful, left-handed, middle-of-the-order bat to the lineup.
The Bobcats are poised to break in the new field with a new era of Bobcats baseball. Although playing as an NAIA Division I Independent school for the first time will have a whole new set of challenges, the Bobcats are confident that contending for a conference title and a national tournament bid is within reach.
The Bobcats open their home season on Friday, February 12, at 1:00 p.m. against Graceland University and hope to see you at Bob Smith Field on the campus of College of the Ozarks.