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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In Pursuit of Perfection

Allan Simpson        

The streak has reached 46, and while there is still a long way to go in the 2009 junior-college baseball season and the meat of their schedule lies ahead of them, it’s clearly getting to a point to at least wonder if Texas’ Howard College can execute the unthinkable, and run the table.

With their perfect 46-0 record, the Hawks easily maintained their hold atop PG Crosschecker’s latest ranking of the nation’s top 50 junior-college teams. To put a little perspective on what they’re accomplishing, every other team in the top 10 has at least seven losses.

So did Howard coach Britt Smith see this coming?

“To be honest, we expected to be really good this year,” he said. “But you never even consider having a record like that. We have not really had anyone stand out as far as exceeding expectations; we’ve just been really consistent thus far. We have pitched well all season and have played really solid defense throughout the year.

“We started slow offensively as a team, but have really improved from week to week throughout the year and right now our team offensive production is better than expected. Our bench play has been tremendous. Every time we plug a new guy in, he has performed at a very high level.”

Howard has pulverized teams in its path, outscoring opponents 490-129. Its team average of .433 is 40 points higher than the next team in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I rankings. The Hawks .738 slugging average dwarfs their opponent mark of .316. But the Hawks are far from a one-dimensional team, and their dominance is reflected across the board.

They’ve stolen 158 bases, and have six players with at least 15 bags. Conversely, thanks to the ace catching tandem of Miles Hamblin and Monk Kreder, their opponents have only 23 stolen bases and been caught attempting to steal on 25 occasions.

Howard’s team ERA of 2.69 is impressive, but downright dominant when compared to the 14.90 figure posted by the competition. Hawks pitchers have also struck out 397 in 304 innings, while walking 114 and allowing just 234 hits (.212 opponent average).

The Hawks have been so overpowering this season that only on a couple of occasions has their streak been in jeopardy.

“This past Saturday, at Midland, was the first time we went to the last inning behind,” Smith said. “We trailed 5-0 after two innings and we trailed 5-4 in the top of the seventh of a seven-inning game.”

But sophomore second baseman Andrew Collazo (.422-8-50) promptly homered to tie the game 5-5, and the Hawks pushed another five runs across the plate—two on a single by Hamblin (.428-13-59) and two more on a double by sophomore third baseman Nick Popescu (.401-5-51).

“That score wasn't as close as the game actually was,” Smith said. “But we have hit in the ninth inning only once all season, and that was the top of the ninth at New Mexico in a game we won 6-3. We have been behind in games early almost routinely.

“It seems like every day we are playing Game Seven of the World Series because every team wants to be the one that knocks us off. It has really worked to our advantage because it is forcing us to play at a high level every day we step on the field to match the effort of the team we are playing.”

Hamblin, a Mississippi recruit, and Kreder (.448-13-50), a Texas Tech transfer, not only share the catching duties for Howard but share the team home-run lead. Their bats are in the middle of the batting order on a regular basis, as one will DH or play first base when the other catches.

But they are hardly the only weapons in Howard’s potent lineup. The Hawks may have the fastest outfield in college baseball—any level—with the trio of sophomore Runey Davis (.373-4-28, 27 SB), freshman Joseph Leftridge (.425-3-44, 24 SB) and sophomore Caleb Nine (.444-4-32, 20 SB). Davis, a transfer from Texas who is scheduled to attend Mississippi State in 2010, is the best athlete on the team and has been clocked in the 60 in 6.29 seconds. Leftridge, a top prospect in high school who did not play baseball a year ago, covers the same distance in 6.45 seconds. Nine, the slowest of the three but an above-average runner in his own right, is an Oklahoma State transfer.

For all the talent up and down the Howard batting order, sophomore shortstop Bryan Johns, a transfer from Blinn (Texas) JC, may be the team’s most valuable everyday player. Not only is he a stabilizer in the middle of the field defensively, but he is hitting .488-7-70, and leads the team in runs scored (65) and RBIs.

And for all that offensive might, we still haven’t addressed the team’s leading hitter—sophomore William Calhoun (.535-6-46), who was expected to be more of a factor this spring as a pitcher, but has been more integral as a DH.

Two Oklahoma-bound sophomore pitchers, lefthander Anthony Collazo (8-0, 2.56) and righthander Zach Neal (9-0, 3.67), have been the top two winners on the pitching staff, but scouts have taken a greater interest in the emergence of two freshmen arms, righthanders Burch Smith (3-0, 2.36, 34 IP/46 SO) and Blake Barnes (7-0, 1.62, 39 IP/54). Both went undrafted a year ago as teammates at Robert E. Lee High in Tyler but have been clocked in the low- to mid-90s this spring.

Not since 1956 has a NJCAA team finished a season without a loss, though Wingate (N.C.) played only an 18-game schedule that year. Of more recent vintage, Connecticut’s Trinity College won 44 straight games at the NCAA Division III level a year ago as it entered the championship game of the D-III World Series, only to lose its first game of the season. But Trinity rebounded to win a national title by capturing a second championship game of the double-elimination tournament.

With 10 more regular-season games and the Region 5 tournament (May 9-13 in Fort Worth), not to mention potentially the JUCO World Series (May 23-30 in Grand Junction, Colo.) still on the schedule, the Hawks have plenty of obstacles in front of them before they even begin to contemplate a perfect slate.

The Hawks know that all too well as they went somewhat down this path a year ago with a lineup that featured the nation’s leading hitter (Tyler Ladendorf; .542-16-82), who became a second-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins; the nation’s stolen base leader (Cameron Monger; .446-12-55, 57 SB); and the nation’s No. 2 RBI man (Matt Curry; .451-20-90). They went rolling into the post-season with a gaudy 48-8 record, only to see their goal of an appearance in the Junior College World Series blow up in their face with two sudden and stunning losses in regional play.

Smith is obviously mindful of that slip-up when he assesses the mindset of his current team.

“The thing that stands out most to me about this team is how unselfish our players are,” he said. “The players are not worried about their draft status, where they have signed to play next year, rankings, winning streaks or what their stats look like. We have some really talented kids whose only concern is to win the game they are playing.”

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