It’s been a number of years since the Garden City High School baseball team has shown the winning form that was prevalent during the early 1990s in Bill Wilson’s first tenure as the head coach of the Buffs.
Since his return in 2009, the Buffs have struggled annually each spring and the 2015 season was no exception, as Wilson watched his team go 5-16 overall record and 1-7 in the Western Athletic Conference. However, the Busters did compete favorably in every game but two, losing 13 games by three runs or less, including five by one run.
Friday, with a 1 p.m. first-pitch of a scheduled doubleheader at Junction City, the Buffs open their 2016 season with a new outlook, a strong cast of returners who are a year older, a year wiser, and have worked hard over the past eight months to put themselves in position to move the program upward.
“It’s a real nice feeling to have every spot that you feel comfortable with,” Wilson said of the fact he welcomes back his entire infield, along with two of three outfielders from last year’s squad. “The biggest thing I see from the boys is they have increased their arm strength. From the outfield, to the infield, to the pitchers, we’re throwing the ball much, much harder and better. It’s pleasant to watch.”
The infield returners include first baseman Eric Heiman, who also will pitch, second baseman Eden Arreola, shortstop Daven Acker, and third baseman Griff Brunson. Unfortunately, the Buffs will be without Acker for the season-opening doubleheader due to academic ineligibility. It is a week-to-week situation that Wilson hopes gets resolved quickly.
Acker has been a stabilizing force on the infield and pitching for the Buffs the past two seasons.
Wilson said he will move Brunson over to shortstop for Friday’s twin bill, resulting in Syrus Schwartz going to third from his centerfield position. Mark Perez is the likely replacement for Schwartz in the outfield.
The other two outfielders will be returners Lorenzo Hinojos in right and Zac Hopkins in left, both seniors. The varsity roster is top-heavy with seniors, nine in all, with the remaining four at the moment being juniors.
Senior right-hander Colton Snodgrass will get the ball on the mound for the opening game with junior Heiman the likely second-game starter.
“We’ve got three kids who will only pitch, and we’ve got six others who will work out and get time on the mound,” Wilson said.
Wilson said he is still searching for a leadoff hitter, but seems set with the second through sixth slots. He will continue to stress aggressive base-running, but hopes his players have learned much from disastrous rundowns a year ago when the Buffs would simply run themselves out of an inning in a close game.
“We’ve got no burners, but we surely must learn how to read pitchers better,” Wilson admitted.. “Last year was just some dumb base-running.”
The schedule does the Buffs no favors either as they play 10 of their first 12 games on the road.
“We’re gonna be a well-traveled team,” Wilson said of upcoming games at Wichita Heights, TMP-Marian in Hays before coming home for an April 8 home opener against Wichita North. Then, it’s back on the road again at Great Bend.
The Buffs only have eight games, four doubleheaders, scheduled for the refurbished Clint Lightner Stadium, which has undergone its second facelift in the past three seasons. There are new, bigger dugouts for both home and visitors, a new nylon net has replaced the chain-link backstop fence and there is new padding along the lower level of the backstop immediately behind home plate.
New bullpens are now on both sides of the field, with artificial turf in place along with raised pitching mounds that simulate the actual mound on the playing field. New fencing is also along the foul lines and the outer portions of the stadium complex.
“It really now has the feel of a first-class baseball facility,” Wilson said.
But with new accessories to the facility, Wilson said the outlook for a better season rests squarely on the players.
“It’s all about changing their complacency from the past,” said the veteran coach. “They’ve gotta take a lot more ownership of the program. But I believe we have a group that will do that. They’ve been successful since they were freshmen, and we’ve been so darned close to getting things turned around.”
Indeed, in addition to the five, one-run losses, the Buffs had three losses by two runs and five more by three runs. Of their five wins, two were by a single run and the other three by three tallies. Only an 8-0 loss to Heights early in the season, and a 9-1 rollover at Liberal late were games in which the Buffs were not in it at the end.
“It’s all about doing the little things,” Wilson said. “Little things that change the outcome of the game. Turning a loss into a win, rather than self-destructing like we did at times a year ago. I think we’re pretty solid defensively, I like where we are with the pitchers. We need to do a better job of scoring runs when we have base-runners. But the bottom line is (pointing to the mound), we’ve got to better at pitching.”
Daven Acker, Sr., SS/P; Eden Arreola, senior, 2B; Griff Brunson, Jr., 3B/P; Eric Heiman, Jr., 1B/P; Steven Herrada, Jr., OF; Lorenzo Hinojos, Sr., OF; Zac Hopkins, Sr., OF; Nick Laurels, Sr., P; Mark Perez, Sr., P; Aric Rowland, Jr., C; Jesse Ruiz, Sr., P; Syrus Schwartz, Sr., OF; Colton Snodgrass, Sr., P.
2016 Schedule (All Doubleheaders)
March 25—at Junction City; April 1—at Wichita Heights; April 5—at TMP-Marian/Hays; April 8—WICHITA NORTH; April 12—at Great Bend; April 22—DODGE CITY; April 26—WICHITA WORD OF LIFE; April 28—at Hays High; May 2—LIBERAL; May 6-7—vs. TBD at Emporia Classic.