By Rob Patrick
Aspire to greatness — it’s what every coach urges his or her players to do and, certainly, Bryant Hornets[more] head baseball coach Kirk Bock does.
His Hornets won a State title two years ago and reached the State championship game against last season before losing to conference rival Conway. And, of course, it’s his team’s goal once again this year (and every year) — one in a series of goals in fact. Win conference, win State and, well, why not more?
“Our goal is to win a National championship and we’re going to do whatever it takes to achieve that goal,” he stated as his team prepared to inaugurate the 2012 season on Monday, Feb. 27, at home against the Pine Bluff Zebras.
The Easton poll that’s put out by Collegiate Baseball magazine is the national ranking that Bock references, though there are others, he noted.
So what would it take?
“You’ve got to win all your games,” he observed. “Last year I think we ended up eighth in the country and, with a couple of breaks in there, I feel like we would’ve been in the top 5 for sure. If we would’ve won the last game, I feel like we would’ve been in the top 3.
“One of the things we talk about with our players is it’s not good enough to be the best shortstop in Bryant or in the conference or in the state,” the coach continued. “Your goal needs to be, to be the best one in the country. Somebody’s got to be. Somebody’s got to win a National championship. Well, it might as well be us.
“We work long hours and we ask a lot of these kids — and they’re giving us a lot,” Bock mentioned. “I understand that and our staff understands that and I think the kids understand that. We’ve got 63 kids in the program right now and the ones that aren’t bought in, they kind of weed themselves out. It is a commitment but, you know, life is a commitment too. So, we’re trying to get them prepared for life.”
The Hornets varsity roster includes seniors Dylan Cross, Ozzie Hurt, Braden Jones, Tyler Nelson, Josh Pultro, Tryce Schalchlin, and Jordan Taylor, with Quinton Motto scheduled to join the team, along with junior Marcus Wilson after basketball season is over. The other juniors are Austin Caldwell, Hayden “Petey” Daniel, Tyler Green, Blain Jackson, Hayden Lessenberry, Daniel Richards, and Nate Rutherford.
Sophomores include Wesley Akers, Trevor Ezell, Devin Dupree, Zach Graddy, Korey Thompson, and Chase Tucker.
Freshman on the varsity squad are Jason Hastings, Ty Harris and Blaine Knight.
The Bryant B squad includes junior Kody Piccirilli, sophomores Dakota Besancon, Justin Emmerling, C.J. Phillips and Alex Willis. Freshmen are Connor Alliston, Bo Birdsong, Bailey Bowers, Luke Brantley, Trey Breeding, Ben Bruick, Caleb Chaffin, Brittan Crouch, Destin Davis, Tre Davis, Collins Fredriksson, Ryan Hall, Weston Jones, Nick Kehrees, Andrew Kincaid, Michael Martindale, Jay McGee, Robert Meeks, Hunter Oglesby, Blake Patterson, Bradley Plunkett, Jimbo Seale, Connor Tatum, Drew Tipton, Matt Vangilder, and Brandan Warner.
For the varsity, Taylor, Cross, Pultro, Nelson and Lessenberry are returning starters in the field. Taylor, an all-State selection who has already committed to play at the University of Central Arkansas hit .388 with 28 runs batted in last season. Cross hit .328 with 24 RBIs and Pultro batted .303 with 17 knocked in. Nelson finished at .268 but led the team with 38 walks. Lessenberry batted 250 but knocked in 19 runs with his 15 hits.
Taylor was also 6-3 on the mound with a save. Cross was 5-0 with a save. Akers, Nelson and Schalchlin also pitched for the varsity.
Bock has not set a line-up yet.
“It’s been the same way really for about the last four years,” he explained. “We’ve got some guys that swing it pretty well and we’ve got some guys that play defense pretty well but a lot of times those guys don’t match up. We have a few of them that do but we never seem to have nine, for whatever reason.
“That’s just one of the things we’re trying to work through and it’s going to be putting a puzzle together,” the coach continued. “And it has been that way for the last four years. When we get those pieces in the right place, we’re pretty good. And if we get them in the right place at the right time, we’re real good. We’ve been intersquading every day, putting people in different positions. We’re trying to get all the pieces together.
“I’ve always liked what I’ve had since I’ve been here,” he mentioned. “Great kids. They know how to play the game. They work extremely hard and they want to win. For the most part, they’re selfless. They’re getting after one another, competing and pushing one another then they’re turning around and patting them on the butt.”
It looks like it’ll be a versatile team. There’s competition for playing time just about everywhere.
At catcher, it’s Lessenberry, Jackson and Graddy.
“All three of those guys bring something different to the game,” Bock said. “I wish I could take all three of them and put them together. One, you cannot say enough about Lessenberry’s leadership qualities. And Blain Jackson swings it. He’s a guy that can generate. And Graddy’s just such a great athlete. He does things extremely well. I wish I could put all three of them in. Hayden’s been going for us for two years. He’s going to see the majority of the time right now unless we have to use him somewhere else. But I think those other two guys are going to see quite a bit of time.
Pultro, who started in center last year, has moved to first. He and Cross will share time.
“Josh has caught on really quick,” Bock said. “He’s done a great job. He’s got a ways to go but he’s getting a good feel for it. Akers is a swing guy from first to third too. He’s going to be involved somewhere. He is a piece of the puzzle.”
Second base is manned by Hurt, who was a late-game defensive replacement in most games last year, and Thompson.
“Both of those guys do a tremendous job defensively,” Bock commented. “We don’t have a better defensive player than Ozzie Hurt. I may not have coached a better defensive player than Ozzie Hurt. He can do some unbelievable things. And once he gets the total package together, he’s going to be really, really good.”
Nelson and Trevor Ezell will play at short.
“Both of those guys bring a lot to the table,” said Bock. “Ezell’s a switch-hitter. He really gets to balls well. His arm’s not quite where Nelson’s is but he’s going to be at short quite often, especially when Nelson’s throwing for us. Tyler does a good job. He’s really improved and he’s going to continue to improve for us.”
Taylor has moved over from short to third base with Richards and Akers.
“There are going to be times when JT is going to be throwing so we’re going to have to slide somebody in,” Bock observed. “Cross, when he’s throwing, we’ve got to slide somebody in at first. It may be a deal where, when Cross starts the game as the pitcher and we want to keep him in to hit, then we’re going to have to slide him to first and bump Pultro somewhere.”
Green and Caldwell have stepped forward in left.
“They’re going to end up playing a lot out there but that’s going to be a swing spot for us,” the coach stated. “Whoever’s swinging it the best is going to be the guy out there. And it may be where we have to bounce Pultro back out there sometimes or Ezell. Defensively, those two (Green and Caldwell) are probably the two best we have.
“In center, we haven’t seen Marcus yet but Petey has been in center and we feel like Marcus is going to come in and have a chance to play somewhere. He’s certainly going to compete for one of those positions. But Petey’s doing a good job. He’s doing a lot better at the plate.”
Tucker and Jones have been playing in right.
“Both of those guys have made some outstanding plays out there,” Bock said. “Tucker, right now, is seeing most of the reps in right. He does a tremendous job getting to balls, has a tremendous arm. Jonesy, we’re probably going to use him more as a pitcher but I would have no problems — he’s a guy that can fill in at any one of those three outfield spots and do a tremendous job for us because he can run and he has good instincts. There isn’t a lazy bone in that kid’s body.
“On the bump, we’ve got Cross and Taylor and Shack (Schalchlin),” he said, switching to the mound corps. “They are guys coming back that had a lot of experience last year. They’ve been doing good.
“Nate Rutherford is a junior that didn’t play last year. He looks like a different guy from three weeks ago to today,” Bock continued. “Nate is a guy that, you can tell, has bought in. We set him down, broke down his throwing mechanics. We gave him things to do and we explained to him, ‘You’re not going to be as good as you can be just by practicing. You’ve got to take it home and do it.’ And from the first day on, you can see an immediate change so you know that he has been taking it home and has been working on it on his own. He looks like a totally different guy. It’s going to take him a little while to get everything figured out but he’s coming along real strong right now and we’re expecting some good things from him if he keeps progressing.
“We’ve got Akers and Nelson,” the coach added. “Nelson’s probably got the best arm we have. He’s going to run it up there mid to upper 80’s. He’s going to do a good job. It’s just that we also need him defensively and he doesn’t bounce back quite the way some of the other kids bounce back so we’re going to spot him up late in the week to throw so he’ll have the weekend to rest and come back the next week. Once he gets some mechanical issues pounded out, he’s going to be really, really effective for us. He hides the ball extremely well and it just blows up on you. He’s tough to hit. He’s probably the toughest guy we have to hit because he hides it so well.
“Akers has done a good job, did a good job for us last year. All those guys — Jones, Akers, Schalchlin, Nelson, Rutherford, Taylor, Cross and Dupree — are going to see a lot of the varsity innings for us.
“And Quinton Motto had a tremendous summer. He’s really picked up with velocity and his mechanics are starting to kick in for him. If he can do as well for us as he did this summer then that’s like icing on the cake. He’ll be a guy that we’ll go to quite often.
“We’ve got a lot of arms, which is good,” Bock observed. “As long as they come in and pound the zone and throw strikes, then we feel like we’re going to have a chance. If we can go out and not walk anybody and not boot any balls, we’re going to compete and we’re going to win most of those games. That’s the things we’ve really been harping on with theses guys.”
Throwing strikes may be even more important than ever because of the institution of new BB CORR bats this season. With smaller sweet spots, it’ll be more difficult for batters to square up pitches and drive them.
“Right now, our pitching is a little ahead of our hitting but in our intersquad (Tuesday), our hitting jumped out and did a good job,” Bock said. “We’ve got four guys that swing it pretty dad-gum good. Then we’ve got five more guys in there that are situational type guys and they’re getting better every day. Coach (Elliott) Jacobs has been working hard with those guys, just getting them productive. With the bats a little deader than they have been, we’re doing a good job of making that adjustment. If we can link it up, we’re going to be pretty good. And we’re getting better at that every day.”
Over the last three seasons under Bock, the Hornets have gone 70-24 overall and 28-14 in the 7A/6A-Central Conference. Once again this season, the league figures to be as tough as any in the state. It has provided both the Class 7A State Tournament finalists the last two seasons.
After playing conference doubleheaders last year, the league will return to a home-and-home schedule this season, which will be the last under the current configuration. Bryant will compete in the South in 2013.
“I kind of like the doubleheaders,” Bock said. “That way you’re going to see everybody’s pitching. You’re not going to see one guy every time. Of course, everybody can see all of ours too but I kind of liked that. But it doesn’t matter. We just have to compete and go on.”
Here are the stats from the 2012 season with returning players in italic.
Final, unofficial 2011 stats through 31 games
Name ab r h bi d t hr bb* so sb avg
Tyler Green 4 13 4 2 1 0 0 0 0 3 1.000
Marcus Wilson 3 17 3 2 1 0 0 0 0 4 1.000
Daniel Richards 4 1 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 1 .750
Tryce Schalchlin 2 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .500
Ashton Green 2 0 1 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 .500
Landon Pickett 93 25 39 32 9 0 4 18 14 2 .419
Lucas Castleberry 48 12 20 11 1 1 0 7 11 1 .417
Tyler Brown 80 24 33 19 5 0 0 17 10 1 .413
Jordan Taylor 80 18 31 28 9 0 2 28 11 1 .388
Evan Jobe 81 24 26 12 5 0 0 15 9 6 .321
Dylan Cross 67 5 22 24 4 0 1 15 13 0 .328
Chris Joiner 93 20 29 22 3 1 2 18 14 2 .312
Josh Pultro 76 16 23 17 4 0 0 22 17 3 .303
Tyler Nelson 82 32 22 18 5 0 0 38 15 4 .268
Hayden Lessenberry 60 0 15 19 3 0 0 22 9 0 .250
Hayden Daniel 11 17 2 2 0 0 0 2 2 6 .182
Ozzie Hurt 11 3 1 2 0 0 0 1 0 1 .111
Zach Graddy 2 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000
Wesley Akers 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000
Caleb Milam 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 .000
Trent Rivers 0 6 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 —–
Braden Jones 0 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 —–
Totals 801 238 275 215 50 2 9 205 125 36 .343
Name w-l ip r er h bb* so era
Tryce Schalchlin 0-0 1 1 0 2 0 0 0.00
Landon Pickett 3-0 24.2 12 10 17 13 22 2.84
Wesley Akers 1-1 11.2 8 5 9 2 5 3.00
Dylan Cross 5-0 42.1 27 22 37 34 35 3.64
Caleb Milam 7-4 57.2 34 31 63 22 53 3.76
Jordan Taylor 6-3 57 41 32 67 22 54 3.93
Tyler Nelson 1-0 10.2 11 9 20 6 5 5.91
Totals 23-8 204.2 134 109 215 99 174 3.73
Saves: Cross 1, Taylor 1.