Coach Monte Brooks wants to know what an encore is like. He knows what it’s not. All he has to do is look back on the 2001 campaign when the Mustangs, one year removed from their first NAIA World Series appearance, dipped below .500 (23-24) and missed out on the postseason completely.
Now, 13 years later, the 18th-year skipper and his band of Mustangs have another opportunity to follow up on the most successful season in program history. It will be a daunting task, one that raises questions about the club’s ability to equal or improve on a school-record win total, the rare double of winning both the GSAC regular-season and tournament championships, earning another Top 25 national ranking, and qualifying for consecutive World Series berths.
Addressing these questions and the skeptics will take place only on the field where the Mustangs return six regulars, including All-American leftfielder Steve Karkenny and middle infielders Jon Popadics and Sam Robison. However, legitimate concerns do exist at first base, behind the plate, and on the mound where the club lost two starters from last year’s elite staff, including all-time wins leader and All-American A. J. Work.
One concern that Brooks doesn’t have is experience with a trio of seniors, most likely, making up the rotation. James Scott, the lone holdover from last year’s rotation, has the experience and stuff to be an ace. Tommy Kister will move to the front of games after an outstanding year as the club’s closer in 2013, setting a school record with 10 saves. The other starter should be Andrew Klausmeier who sparkled in seven starts last year, going 6-1 with a 2.25 ERA.
Taking into account 18 doubleheaders, the need for rest, and possible injuries, Brooks will rely on senior Tucker Richardson and sophomore Dalton Thompson to make spot starts and maybe more. Thompson will be auditioning for a regular spot in the rotation a year down the road along with freshmen Jason Karkenny, Conner Menez, and Hunter Totemeier, who will all pitch in long and middle relief.
With Kister’s move to the rotation, junior transfer Josh Brown has been anointed the closer, a role he should thrive in considering his mental toughness and experience on the JC level.
Brown will not only be counted on to make a difference on the mound he’ll also be the starter at first base where his defense could complete one of the strongest infields in college baseball and his offensive production in the middle of the order will make the lineup even more lethal. Sophomore transfer Collin Nyenhuis will provide depth with power and could move across the diamond to third base, too.
Making those throws from the hot corner will be senior Ryan Shackelford, who will settle into one position for the entire season after moving around during his first three years. He’ll be counted on to flash the leather, make accurate throws, and use his picture-perfect swing in the middle of the order to produce runs.
The linchpins of the infield, however, reside up the middle where shortstop Jon Popadics and second baseman Sam Robison form one of the top double play combinations in the country. Working together since midway through their freshman seasons, the juniors know each other’s tendencies and have grown into peerless fielders as well as productive hitters.
Beyond the actual diamond lies a vast expanse of green that will be patrolled by a trio of talented outfielders, including incumbents Steve Karkenny and Caleb Halverson. Karkenny is among the best leftfielders in the country, displaying top-flight tools at the plate and in the field while Halverson is an elite defensive centerfielder who will hit near or at the top of the order. They’ll be joined by rightfielder Tyler Krahn, a sophomore transfer who’ll display an accurate arm and a solid bat. When Brooks wants to test his outfield depth, he’ll turn to Anthony Leal, who has proven he can hit the ball, or Bryce Clancy for production.
Not to be forgotten in all of this talk of position players is veteran designated hitter Joe Riddle. One of the finest at his post in school history, he’ll be counted on to drive in bunches of runs from his spot in the middle of the order.
The opportunity to produce an encore will be tested during a demanding 51-game schedule that starts in mid-January and runs through April. With 28 of those contests slated for the FieldTurf of Reese Field, the Mustangs are hoping to use that as an advantage, but it will be a daunting task, especially against GSAC opponents who have become accustomed to playing on the Placerita Canyon turf. In conference play, the Mustangs will engage a 36-game slate, highlighted by contests against No. 9 Concordia and 22nd-ranked San Diego Christian, two squads that qualified for the NAIA National Championship Opening Round last spring.