The 2008 junior-college season ended far sooner than expected for both Howard (Texas) and Spartanburg Methodist (S.C.), which had designs on returning to the Junior College World Series only to make unexpected exits early in post-season play.
This could be a year of redemption for both schools as Howard (48-10 in 2008), the 1991 national champion, and Spartanburg Methodist (44-15 in 2008), which has reached the JUCO World Series three times in this decade, have gotten off to blistering starts. Through games of March 8, Howard is 20-0 and Spartanburg Methodist is 19-1, and the two schools are ranked 1-2 in PG Crosschecker’s ranking of the nation’s top 25 junior-college teams.
Howard was an offensive juggernaut a year ago with a potent lineup led by shortstop Tyler Laderdorf (.542-16-82), a second-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins, and first baseman Matt Curry (.451-20-90), now at Texas Christian. But this year, pitching has been the strong suit for the Hawks, who have posted an aggregate 2.30 ERA in winning 20 straight games. Sophomore righthander Zach Neal, an Oklahoma recruit, is 5-0, 2.10 with no walks and 34 strikeouts in 26 innings. But the Hawks are still hitting .398 as a team, with Ladendof’s replacement at shortstop, 5-foot-9 shortstop Bryan Johns, who played at Blinn (Texas) JC a year ago, batting .455-6-35.
Spartanburg Methodist, meanwhile, has gotten maximum mileage out of two freshmen lefthanders, Marty Gantt (3-0, 1.35) and Jimmy Revan (4-0, 0.42), two in-state players who went undrafted in 2008. Between them, they have struck out 42 and walked just eight in 42 innings. Gantt has also swung a big stick for the Pioneers in his dual role as the team’s right fielder, hitting .475-9-26 and leading the team in homers and RBIs.
Walters State Still Formidable
Tennessee’s Walters State, the nation’s pre-season No. 1-ranked team, has already lost almost as many games this season (6) as it did prior to its appearance in the Junior College World Series a year ago (7), even though most of its key returning players from 2008 continue to play at a high level.
First baseman Kyle Koeneman, who hit .415 and topped the nation with 29 homers as a freshman, is batting .403 and pacing the Senators with 11 homers and 31 RBIs through 22 games. Catcher Jesse Wierzbicki, who led the team with a .433 average as a freshman, continues to pace the Senators with a sizzling .472 average, while contributing seven homers and 26 RBIs. As a team, the Senators are hitting .356 and averaging 8.6 runs per game. Seven of the team’s nine starters are hitting .385 or better.
Lefthander Chad Bell, who went 12-2 a year ago and topped the team with 105 strikeouts in 105 innings, is 3-1, 2.25 to date, and has struck out 34 in 28 innings. Righthander Trent Rothlin, meanwhile, has struggled more than expected after transferring from Clemson and showcasing a 94 mph fastball in the fall. He is 3-1, tops the Senators with 35 strikeouts in 26 innings and has held opponents to a .245 average, but has walked 12, battled command issues and posted a 5.74 team ERA.
All four players were heavily targeted in the NCAA Division I recruiting process in November, with the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Rothlin, the team’s top prospect for the 2009 draft, headed for Mississippi in 2010. Bell has committed to Tennessee and Wierzbicki to North Carolina.
The No. 11-ranked Senators, 16-6 after winning a doubleheader Monday, have rallied after dropping all four games at the Rahal/Miller National Juco Classic at Marianna, Fla., in mid-February. They handed No. 2 Spartanburg Methodist its only loss of the season.
Central Arizona, which finished third at the 2008 Junior College World Series and moved to No. 1 in PG Crosschecker’s first in-season ranking of the nation’s top 25 junior-college teams, was shut out twice Saturday, 1-0 and 3-0, by arch-rival and pitching-rich Yavapai (22-4, 12-2), which replaced Central Arizona (20-4, 10-4) atop the Arizona Community College standings in the process. The two best pitchers in Arizona this spring, Yavapai sophomore righthander Merrill Kelly and Central Arizona lefthander Jimmy Patterson, were not matched against each other but pitched impressively. Both pitchers threw five-hitters, with Kelly working at 89-91 mph and mixing in a plus curve and change in the nightcap to improve his record on the season to 4-0, 0.64 with nine walks and 40 strikeouts in 42 innings. Patterson, who spun a 13-strikeout no-hitter against Paradise Valley a week earlier, touched 91 mph and complemented his fastball with an above-average slider in dropping the opener. He fell to 3-2, 1.69 on the season with 45 strikeouts and just nine walks allowed in 32 innings. Patterson, an Arizona State recruit, also hits cleanup for his team.
--One of the best pitching match-ups of the 2009 season took place March 7 in Texas, when 5-foot-11, 205-pound Alvin JC righthander Boogie Anagnostou hooked up with 6-foot-6, 205-pound Blinn JC righthander Kendal Korbal. Though Korbal is ranked as the No. 3 junior-college player in the nation by PG Crosschecker, he was outpitched by Anagnostou, a significant prospect in his own right who spun a two-hit shutout while striking out 11. Alvin won the game 2-0. Both pitchers went the distance with Anagnostou, who pitched at Texas Christian as a freshman and has committed to Rice for 2010, clocked as high as 93 mph. Korbal, a TCU recruit, has been clocked up to 95 mph in the past, but was a more customary 91-92 on this day. He allowed six hits.
--Georgia’s Young Harris College moved to No. 3 in the national rankings by winning 20 of 21 games, largely on the explosive offensive performance of sophomore third baseman Bryson Smith (.554-12-52), a transfer from Division II Augusta State who led the nation in RBIs and was the co-leader in home runs, and sophomore outfielder Daniel Warzon (.511-3-42), and the stellar pitching of sophomore righthanders Eric Swegman (4-0, 2.12), a Georgia recruit, and C.J. Smith (5-1, 2.40), a Penn State recruit.