Juco : : Story
Friday, April 13, 2012

Winning habit hard to kick

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Iowa Western CC

Once Mark Rardin took control of the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division I baseball program at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs 10 years ago, the Reivers started to develop a habit that quickly turned into a time honored tradition.

It’s one of those good habits, sort of like daily exercise, no one wants to kick. And it’s one of those traditions, sort of like baseball’s Opening Day, no one wants to change.

What Iowa Western does on an annual basis just about as well as any other junior college program in the country is win a ton of ballgames in late winter and early spring in a tradition that often spills over into the first days of June. The Reivers (river pirates) are at it again this season, having won 34 of their first 35 games to settle into the No. 2 spot in the Perfect Game Junior College Top 50 national rankings.

“We really haven’t changed much here. Baseball is baseball and it’s not real tricky, in my opinion,” Rardin said in an April 12 telephone conversation with PG. “But there is a process and I think everybody has to have to a system, and we’re no different. We’re more stubborn than the kids in that ‘This is the way we do things.’ We’ve established that there is zero gray area and it’s just black or white; you’re either right or you’re wrong (and) it’s either good or it’s bad.”

Iowa Western has advanced to the NJCAA World Series for five straight years and six of the last seven. It won the National Championship in 2010, and finished third in 2005 and 2011. The 2010 championship team won 51 games and the 2008 World Series participants won a school record 55.

IWCC is a member of the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference, a 12-team league that consists of five NJCAA D-I schools – like Iowa Western – and seven NJCAA D-II schools. The Reivers have won seven straight conference titles and nine since 2000.

They won their first 17 games this season, dropped their second ICCAC game at traditional power Indian Hills, and then rattled off another 17 straight wins before four scheduled games April 14-15 at home against Indian Hills.

“When we had our first meeting in the fall, I told them that we have as much talent (on this team) as any other time since I’ve been here,” Rardin said. “I told them there were really only two ways that we can be stopped from having a successful season: injuries, which we can’t do anything about, and each player’s personal decisions every day. Those were really the only two ways we were going to get stopped.”

This is a squad that boasted a team batting average of .443 through its first 35 games, and some of the players’ offensive stats are certainly eye-popping. Some of the pitcher’s lines aren’t too shabby either.

The leader is outfielder/right-hander Tanner Krietemeier, who is playing his sophomore season in Council Bluffs after transferring in from the University of Nebraska. He has now signed with Oklahoma State.

Krietemeier is a 6-foot-2, 190-pound switch-hitter from Castle Rock, Colo., who after 35 games led the pitching staff in wins and ERA, and was one of 13 Reivers with at least 52 at-bats hitting better than .400.

On the hill, Krietemeier stood 6-0 with a 0.53 ERA in 32 innings, and allowed only 15 hits and seven walks while striking out 51. At the plate, he was tearing it up at a .462 clip (42-for-91) with six home runs, 11 doubles, 35 RBI and 40 runs scored. Perfect Game recently recognized him as a “legitimate two-way prospect for the draft.”

“That competitiveness, when a guy is a position player or a hitter and then he gets out on the mound, there’s a different kind of competitor on the mound a lot of times; that’s what Tanner is,” Rardin said. “Pitcher’s are competitors, but there’s a different kind of competitor when they’re a guy that plays every day in the field, runs the bases and hits, and then he gets out on the mound. Tanner is going to come after you; he’s aggressive in the zone.”

Rardin sees Krietemeier most likely as a position player at the next level, whether it’s at Oklahoma State or in the professional ranks.

Krietemeier is just one of 19 impact players on Iowa Western’s roster who attended Perfect Game events while in high school, and none of the others are more prominent than sophomore third baseman Damek Tomscha.

Tomscha was named the 2010 Iowa Gatorade Player of the Year out of Sioux City North High School and was ranked the nation’s 381st top overall prospect in his graduating class. He played in eight Perfect Game events, including two seasons in the PG Iowa Spring Wood Bat League and one in the PG Iowa Fall Wood Bat League.

The Phillies selected him in the 50th round of the 2010 MLB amateur draft but he opted to head for Iowa Western instead. The Marlins selected him in the 32nd round of the 2011 draft, but he again decided to stay put at Iowa Western for his sophomore season.

Tomscha hit .400 (38-for-95) with six home runs (tied for the team high), 13 doubles (team high), 39 RBI and 44 runs (team high) through 35 games this season. He has signed a letter-of-intent with Auburn in the event he once again isn’t satisfied with his draft position. Earlier this season, PG ranked Tomscha the No. 20 overall junior college draft prospect in the country.

“He’s a special talent, a special kid, from a special family. We kind of got lucky with the whole package there,” Rardin said. “He’s got unbelievable athleticism at third base … and he’s really become a man being 6-3 and 225. … He’s got great gifts and he’s worked on them since he’s been here.”

There is no question that depth is the strength of this year’s Reivers squad. Fourteen players had at least 52 at-bats through the first 35 games. Iowa Western typically plays doubleheaders (seven inning games) and Rardin uses a different lineup each game. That explains why 10 Reivers have between 52 and 67 at-bats and only four have more than 74.

Two Reivers were still hitting over .500 after 35 games. Sophomore catcher Levi Meyer from Wichita, Kan., was 35-for-62 (.565) with four home runs, 30 RBI and 26 runs scored and sophomore infielder Sam Bumpers from Bourbonnais, Ill., hit .509 (28-for-55) with 23 RBI and 20 runs.

The other top rakers – and there are many – include freshman outfielder Alex Greer from Levacy. Mo. (.368, team-highs of 9 home runs, 43 RBI); sophomore first baseman/utility Gabriel DeVarona from Pembroke Pines, Fla. (.419, 26 RBI, 20 runs); freshman catcher/outfielder Steven Leonard from Monument, Colo. (.493, 10 doubles); freshman infielder Grant Kay from Ralston, Neb. (.482, 4 home runs, 23 RBI, 39 runs) and freshman infielder Adam Morey from Waterloo, Neb. (.443, 4 home runs, 25 RBI, 23 runs).

In addition to Krietemeier’s mound prowess, others on the staff have pitched well enough that 10 have picked up at least one win among the Reivers’ first 34 victories. Sophomore right-hander Jake Thompson (Shawnee, Kan.) stood 6-0 with a 5.78 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings; left-handed freshman Mike Hanchar (Highland, Ind.) was 5-0 with a 2.00 ERA and 21 Ks in 18 innings and sophomore Andy Roberts (Prescott, Ariz.) stood 4-0 with a 2.74 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 23 innings.

Nine Reivers have signed with NCAA D-I programs for 2013, including Krietemeier and Tomscha. Left-hander Kyle Gehrs (Oklahoma State), left-hander Andy Roberts (Old Dominion), right-hander Jake Thompson (Western Kentucky), right-hander A.J. Gaura (Austin Peay) and catcher Morey (Florida Atlantic) are among those signed. Right-hander Michael Hoppes and shortstop Chris Waylock – both of whom are out with injuries this spring – have signed with Nebraska and the U of Houston, respectively.

The Iowa Western baseball program can’t offer full-ride scholarships like some of the premier junior college programs across the country have the resources to do. It’s those schools that Rardin and his assistant coach/recruiting coordinator Rob Allison compete against on the recruiting trail, as well as the nation’s four year schools in NCAA Division I, II and III, and the NAIA schools.

Rardin and Allison definitely recruit on a national – and even international – scale. Fifteen states and Victoria, Australia are represented on the Reivers’ 30-man roster. They try to lock-in the top talent from Omaha – just across the Missouri River from Council Bluffs – but in those cases they find themselves recruiting against Nebraska, Creighton, Kansas State, Kansas, Nebraska-Omaha and Iowa, among others.

Rardin and Allison recruit at as many Perfect Game events as they’re allowed to, and Rardin likes their chances when it comes to getting the top kids.

“I think we do as good of a job as anybody with throwing out the net and starting to pull it in, and seeing what’s out there, what level the kid is … and what kind of family he comes from,” Rardin said.

If this season concludes with a sixth straight NJCAA D-I World Series berth, as many expect, it won’t be an aberration. And even though IWCC is the northern most team ranked in the national top 20 and has been one of the country’s most successful programs over the last 10 years, the Reivers have learned to stay grounded.

“One of the things we tell our kids is ‘either you’re going to be humble or you’re going to be getting humbled,’” Rardin said. “If you can just play the game and play it right and be humble about your business, that’s great. But if you think you’re the highest ones on the totem pole and you think that you created the game and that you can walk on water, you’re going to get humbled in a hurry.”

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