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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

JUCOs Are A Washout

Allan Simpson        

Steady rain drowned out or significantly impacted baseball competition at all levels in the southeastern quadrant of the country throughout the weekend. Accordingly, there were few games of substance played, and little or no shakeup in the latest PG Crosschecker Top 25 junior-college rankings.

Howard (Texas) JC, unbeaten at 20-0, retained the No. 1 spot by not even playing last week. The Hawks were scheduled to participate in a tournament in Tyler, Texas, that also featured Iowa’s Des Moines Area JC, the top-ranked team in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II rankings, and also unbeaten to date, at 13-0. But the entire tournament was washed away.

Not only did Howard hold steady at No. 1, but the first seven spots in the PG Crosschecker top 25 rankings remained intact.

Even the nation’s top individual performer to date in the junior-college ranks, Young Harris (Ga.) sophomore third baseman Bryson Smith, didn’t play last week. His idle time, however, was more a factor of a minor injury. Through his first 25 games for the No. 3-ranked Mountain Lions (24-4), Smith was hitting.578-14-60. His average ranked second in the country, while he was tops in homers and RBIs. Additionally, he had walked 18 times and struck out just twice.

Smith is a transfer from Georgia’s Augusta State, an NCAA Division II team, and hit a solid .365-6-43 there as a freshman. Young Harris coach Rick Robinson has been as surprised as anyone by his breakout season at the plate in 2009. He has eight Division I signees for 2010 on his roster, but Smith isn’t one of them.

“I knew he was good, but had no idea he would have 60 RBIs after 24 games,” Robinson said. “Nick Markakis had 92 RBIs for us in the year he was drafted in the first round by Baltimore. As far as where Bryson might be drafted, I have no idea. Most of the scouts we’ve seen so far have been coming to see (Eric) Swegman and (Kenny) Swab, but they never say anything about Bryson, or even C.J. Smith.”

Swegman, a Georgia recruit, and Smith, a Penn State recruit, have been the top two starters on the Young Harris pitching staff, going 4-0, 3.24 and 6-1, 3.28 respectively, while Swab, a catcher/outfielder who has committed to Virginia, has hit .394-3-35. But none of those players has carried the team quite like Smith.

Howard has gotten substantial seasons, as well, from unexpected sources. Sophomore Bryan Johns, an unheralded transfer from Blinn (Texas) JC, has stepped in at shortstop as the replacement for Tyler Ladendorf, a second-round pick of the Minnesota Twins a year ago and the dominant offensive player in junior-college baseball in 2008. Johns is hitting .455 while leading the Hawks in homers (6) and RBIs (35), and he had also committed just two errors.

At 5-0, 2.10 with 34 walks in 26 innings, sophomore righthander Zach Neal tops Howard in wins and strikeouts, in the process of becoming the team’s ace. Neal transferred to Howard from Sam Houston State amidst little fanfare as he relies primarily on pitchability and command for his success. His changeup is his best pitch.

Sophomore lefthander Anthony Collazo ranks right behind Neal at 4-0, 2.63 with 33 strikeouts in 24 innings, but he was at least a known commodity prior to 2009 as he went 10-2, 4.94 a year ago for the Hawks with a team-best 96 strikeouts in 62 innings. Both Collazzo and Neal have committed to pitch at Oklahoma a year from now.

Collazzo is one of three pitchers on a Howard staff that has a cumulative 2.30 ERA, whose fastball has been clocked as high as 93 mph. Freshman righthander Burch Smith (3-0, 1.37, 20 IP/30 SO) and sophomore righthander Hunter Hill have also peaked at 93. But while Smith has pitched impressively, Hill has been a non-factor after transferring from Texas. He was initially targeted to be the closer for Howard.

“Our pitching has been pretty dominant so far,” Howard coach Britt Smith said.

While Johns and Neal have been possibly the team’s key players to date, neither is considered one of the team’s elite prospects. Like Young Harris, Howard has eight players headed for Division I schools a year from now—if they even get there, as several Hawks players are being closely pursued by scouts. It would not be surprising to see 7-8 Howard players drafted in June.

Sophomore outfielder Runey Davis and sophomore catcher Miles Hamblin are considered the team’s best prospects. Davis has committed to Mississippi State, Hamblin to Ole Miss. Yet both players could also edge their way into the top 5-6 rounds of the draft.

Davis, drafted in the 11th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007, has gotten a chance to play regularly this season after warming the bench at Texas as a freshman, and he has responded with a .357-1-12 season, along with a team-high eight stolen bases in eight attempts. Highly-athletic, Davis has been clocked in the 60 in 6.29 seconds.

“He’s an incredibly athletic kid,” Smith said. “He’s like Ladendorf was as a freshman in his terms of his development. He does a lot of little things OK, but just needs at-bats to get straightened out at the plate.”

Hamblin’s (.400-3-15) strengths are his lefthanded power and arm strength. He hit .412-11-56 a year ago, and is part of a catching tandem at Howard that may be the equal of any college program in the country, at any level, as he shares the job with Monk Kreder (.375-2-19), an excellent defender and a Texas Tech transfer. Not only do they split time behind the plate and at DH, but Hamblin and Kreder hit interchangeably in the 3-4 spots in the Howard batting order, depending on whether a lefthander or righthander is pitching.

With such a depth of talent, Howard has hardly skipped a beat from a team that went 48-10 a year ago, and lost impact players like Ladendorf (.542-16-82); first baseman Matt Curry (.451-20-90), now at Texas Christian; and Cameron Monger (.446-12-55, 60 SB), not at New Mexico.

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