The Garden City Community College Broncbusters’ baseball team will be as young as ever entering the 2018 season, which begins at 1 p.m. Friday at Williams Stadium.
The Busters will host Trinidad State (Colo.) for one, nine-inning game, and then make the return trip Sunday.
Garden City returns just 11 players from last year, and only six saw significant time on the field. That number of returners is down from last season’s 15, when the Busters recorded a 34-24 overall record and a disappointing first-round exit from the Region 6 tournament.
“We’re going to have a lot of young guys playing out there,” said GCCC head coach Chris Finnegan, who is entering his 13th season at the helm of the Busters. “It’s like anything else. You use the fall (season) as a bit of a trial and error, work on some different things with them, and try to figure out what’s the best fit.”
The Busters’ lineup seems to be a work in progress, besides the three regular starters returning from last season, shortstop Ty Lightley, catcher Ty Barclay and outfielder Clint Allen. But the pitching staff may be able to give the lineup some time to gel, as Finnegan has three starting pitchers returning, one of whom, Austin Stone, will take the ball in the season opener on Friday against Trinidad State, scheduled to be one, nine-inning game.
Stone was hurt in his third start of the season last year, and took a medical red-shirt, leaving him as freshman this season.
“We get an opportunity to have him fully healthy … which is nice,” Finnegan said of Stone, who is signed to play at Metro State University in Denver. “He’s going to be another strike thrower for us.”
Stone was just one of several injuries the Buster pitching staff suffered last season, in which they posted a 6.46 staff ERA, the worst for GCCC since at least 2013, the first year the NJCAA stats are available.
“Last year, we dealt with a lot of injuries, so we went back and forth all year long, which happens,” Finnegan said. “We just had to deal with it, and we needed guys to step up consistently.”
That didn’t happen, but perhaps this year the Busters won’t be saddled with as many injuries.
The Busters’ No. 2 starter to begin the year is Eric Heiman, the 2017 Garden City High School graduate. Finnegan said freshman Jacob Garza may also slot into the No. 2 position, but he’s beginning the season with an illness.
Freshman Jacob Douglas, of Canada, will be the No. 3, while sophomore returner Ryder Yakel is set to take the fourth spot in the rotation. Yakel is a Lakin High School graduate, and was the Busters’ best starter towards the end of last season, posting a 4.50 ERA in 60 innings of work across 10 starts — 15 appearances. He struck out 47 and walked just 14. He went 5-4 and tossed three complete games.
The focus for the starters will be throwing strikes and keeping the ball down in the zone, Finnegan said, because they lack the velocity needed to strike out batters in bunches.
On the infield, Barclay and Lightley will be the veterans, with several players vying for the starting spots at the other infield positions. Garden City High School’s Griff Brunson may see time at second, third or shortstop, while Chet Lytle may be the early season starter at third.
At first, sophomore transfer Robbie Young is battling with freshmen Chris Lara and Corbin Truslow for playing time.
Clint Allen, another Buster returner, will man one outfield spot — left or center — while Truslow, and brothers ReJean and Gino Bourget, and Alec Eskenazi will see some at bats in the outfield, as well.
The Busters lost All-Region first team third baseman Alex Nielsen, second team All-KJCCC West first baseman Jesse Gonzalez and honorable mention All-KJCCC West designated hitter Conner Reynolds from last season. That trio combined for 31 home runs and 170 RBIs in 2017, the type of power that is hard to replace.
The Busters hit 61 home runs a year ago.
“I doubt we hit 40, 50 home runs,” Finnegan said. “I bet we hit 30, 35 home runs this year, but that’s about it. We’ve got to hit a lot of doubles and execute.”
Conference play begins on March 1, when the Busters host Cloud County and former assistant Eric Gilliland, who will enter his second year at the helm of the T-Birds.
Notes: Hutchinson ran away with the KJCCC West Division a year ago, going 26-6 in conference play. However, the East Division dominated the regional tournament, and Cowley (45-18 overall) advanced to the NJCAA World Series. The Tigers went 1-2 in the tournament and finished in sixth.