words: Don Lowe
Images: courtesy UAFS Sports Information
UAFS Lions 2016 Baseball Season
After having gone through his inaugural season at the helm, University of Arkansas Fort Smith Lions baseball head coach Todd Holland is thrilled with how much more familiar he now is with the program. And he’s especially excited about his returners, guys like Josh Vanderpool (Vandy), Kasey Cooper and Ozzie Hurt, knowing how they played last year and that they now have another year under their belts.
Holland says, “I learned a lot about the Heartland Conference, what kind of conference it is, and what the teams are like, so I’m more prepared for what to expect week in and week out.”
A tough lesson a year ago was the exhausting toll that so many lengthy road trips took on UAFS. So, Holland is ecstatic that several of those long and winding journeys aren’t happening this season. “We don’t have to go to Laredo, the Panhandle or Austin,” Holland says. “We don’t have to go to San Antonio twice and we don’t have to go to Odessa. So, our travel is going to be a lot easier.”
It’s also going to be a lot easier for Holland to identify his team’s strengths after being with this group for a full year. “I think we are going to be fairly well-balanced. We have some really good arms this year and we’ll score runs. We may not be as good offensively, but I think our pitching will do a better job of holding teams a little bit closer. Last year, we had a lot of games where we scored eight to nine runs and we would lose by one or two runs.”
Regardless of the positives, Holland’s biggest concern at the outset of this season is that they don’t start the spring semester until January 19. “So we’ll have, maybe, a week of practices before we play our first game.” Even with so little preparation time prior to their regular-season opener, Holland seems to be encouraged by his three main groups—the outfielders, infielders and pitchers.
“Our outfield will be very good. Vandy has a little bit of a bummed elbow right now, so we are going to have to find a place for him. Alec Pender, who was a backup last year, had a really good fall. Our centerfielder, Trevor Crone, is a kid from Conners State who has been a huge bonus for us. If Cooper can tie it together for a year, he could be the best player in Division II baseball.”
As for the infield, Holland says, “Ozzie’s probably the best defensive player in Arkansas at shortstop. We have a new third baseman. We lost Ryan Justus, who was really good defensively. Nick Yoning is getting better. He is transitioning from shortstop to third base. He made an error this fall and I kind of hammered him and said, ‘You don’t do that here.’
“We’ll probably have to move Vandy to first base just to keep him in the lineup. If Vandy can handle the transition to first base and Yoning picks things up, we’ll be just as good defensively as we were last year.”
When it comes to pitching, Holland’s assessment is this: “We have four guys who are [throwing] 90 miles an hour, plus. We have two who throw 95 mph. We are deeper. We probably have five front-line guys who will be really good. The only question mark will be the ability to throw enough strikes. But, the third, fourth and fifth guys coming out are good enough that they throw strikes all the time. Our last year’s number one and two guys, besides Kellen Smith, would be about our number seven or eight guy on this staff, which is good for us.”
While it will take an entire team effort every time Holland’s Lions take the field, there are a number of individuals who will be counted on to shine. In particular, Holland expects good things from “Josh Vanderpool, Ozzie defensively, Kasey Cooper will be big and Crone will be huge for us in centerfield this year.”
Holland continued, saying “Clayton Whelchel is a kid from Huntsville who throws it 95 mph, Hasten Freeman had a really good fall and topped out at 94 mph and we have a lefty from Southeastern Oklahoma, Evan Sanders, who was 92-93 mph. Landon Bradley from Conners State was 92 mph this fall. We’ve got arms. It’s just a matter if they can tie it all together.”
Ultimately, Holland believes that if UAFS is going to piece everything together and enjoy a fair amount of success, they are going to have to pitch. Holland says, “We are going to score runs. We may not score eight to ten runs like we did last year. We may score five to seven, which most Division II teams would take. It’s going to be whether or not we can control our pitching and throw strikes. If we throw strikes, we’ll be tough to beat.”
Regardless of what may transpire over the next couple of months, at this point nothing beats having a year under his belt for Holland as he focuses on leading a UAFS squad that he knows so much more about. No doubt about it, that’s a refreshing start as this season gets underway.