Stars counting on veterans to produce

As the second season of baseball at South Arkansas Community College begins, coach Cannon Lester has much more certainty in his lineup than he did at this time a year ago.

“I think in Year 2, you can definitely tell a difference just as far as we have come player-wise and development-wise,” Lester said. “The depth we have compared to last year is a big difference. It’s good knowing what to expect, that’s for sure.”

The Stars, who went 24-32-1 in their debut season, have a wealth of experience in their lineup.

Thanks to that, Lester has been able to work more with his freshmen during the fall and winter practices.

“I think so,” Lester said. “Knowing those guys that are there that have been with me for a year, I was telling my wife that the older guys know how to handle me. They know what to take seriously when I say it and what to take lightly. 

“Those young guys aren’t quite sure, but they’ve been around me enough that they understand when it’s go time. That’s been good, and the older guys have really started to show the younger guys the way, so that’s probably been the biggest difference between this year and last year so far.”

On the infield, the Stars have a pair of former Union County standouts manning the right side of the diamond.

Brennan Jones (.167 BA, 0 HR, 10 RBI), who starred at El Dorado, will be at first base with Lester adding that freshmen Cam Lavergne and Nikolas Ioannou could also see playing time.

“He had a great fall over there,” Lester said of Jones. “He’s really come along defensively and he tore the cover off the ball this fall. I think he ended up second on the team this fall in extra-base hits, so he really drove the baseball. We look for him to do big things over there.”

At 6-7, Ioannou brings size and Lester said he has been pleased with his defense. Lester added that Lavergne has come a long ways defensively and has high offensive potential.

Trace Shoup (.338 BA, 9 HR, 61 RBI), who starred at Parkers Chapel and led the Stars offensively in a myriad of offensive categories a year ago, is slated to play at second base.

“He’s really played the infield well,” Lester said. “He’s going to hit in the middle of our order. He’s going to be a great player for us. He was good last year, but I think he’s ready to turn the corner.”

Clay Burrows (.312 BA, 0 HR, 19 RBI, 13 SB), who signed with Southern Arkansas, is back at shortstop.

“I would say he is our team leader on the infield,” Lester said. 

“He’s probably the least suspecting guy on our team, but he’s a good ballplayer. He’s really come along in the extra-base hit department. He’s really starting to drive some baseballs and he’s always been very good defensively.”

Another sophomore that is back is Elijah Nichols (.268 BA, 4 HR, 25 RBI), who is expected to get the nod at third base.

“Probably our best player in the fall,” Lester said. “He played some first for us last year, but he’ll be at third and hit in the four-hole. He’s 5-10, 170, not very big, but he had about 13 homers this fall. 

“He tore the cover off the ball, and we hope he just keeps half of what he had in the fall. He was unbelievable.”

Behind the plate, the Stars have another returning starter back in Ryan Riggs (.301 BA, 3 HR, 41 RBI).

“He’s definitely our Game 1 guy back there and he’ll hit in our three-hole,” Lester said. “He can really hit. He’s really come along. He was a good defensive player, but he’s really taken a step forward defensively.”

Riggs played 57 games last year, but freshman Jacob Ambriz should be able to step in and get plenty of work behind the plate.

“He’s a guy that can really swing it,” Lester said. “Him and Riggs I think are probably two of our better hitters. Ambriz isn’t quite as good defensively as Ryan, but he’s really come along. For our doubleheaders, we’ll probably catch Ryan the first game and DH one and then DH the other in the second game and catch Ambriz is what it’s looking like.”

Lester added that redshirt freshman Beau Kuttenkuler could also play behind the plate while also seeing time at second base.

If there is one area where the Stars are the deepest, it’s in the outfield.

Roc Hawthorne (.281 BA, 8 HR, 31 RBI) is back in center field and will likely be the Stars’ leadoff hitter.

But beyond Hawthorne, the Stars have five other outfielders who will push for playing time in the corner spots.

“It’s probably the one spot from an offensive standpoint we’re not really sure, but we’re stacked out there,” Lester said. “We’ve got plenty of options. We’ve got six guys out there that I really believe in and that could do really well for us.”

Gabe Spedale (.241 BA, 7 HR, 32 RBI) gave the Stars plenty of offense from the bottom of the order, while Hunter Royal (.280 BA, 1 HR, 16 RBI) was one of several players who contributed as a two-way player as a freshman.

“He started a ton of games in center and he hit quite a few home runs,” Lester said of Spedale. “Hunter has got some pop there and he had a good year for us.”

The other three candidates all could provide plenty of offense.

Leighton Turbeville, who like Jones starred at El Dorado, just joined the team.

“We brought him in at the semester,” Lester said. “The other day in scrimmages, he hit two balls out, so he’s really turning into some power. He’s had a long, kind of a turbulent time, but he’s been in junior college baseball and knows what this conference is like.”

Brennan Surles could see time in left field after making his presence felt during the fall.

“I think he’s one our biggest surprises,” Lester said. “He’s really hit the ball hard and the defense has come along. He’s going to be a good player for us.”

Kyle Tolley, a redshirt freshman, also had a solid performance in the fall.

“He can really run and he’s added some muscle,” Lester said. “He hit four or five homers this fall.”

Thanks to their depth in the outfield, Lester can go with a mix-and-match approach.

“We definitely can,” Lester said. “Kyle and Brennan are right-handed hitters and then pretty much the rest of them are all lefties. We can definitely mix and match there. Each one of them has their own strengths.

“Roc’s that guy that’s pretty irreplaceable. He’s very above average defensively, very above average hitter, on-base guy that has some pop, but the others are kind of interchangeable. 

“We’ll probably mix and match some based on the scouting reports and who’s hot. Maybe get some DH looks or pinch-hit roles, just give them a lot of at-bats early as much as we can and once the season is on, just kind of ride the hot hand.”