BELLEVILLE — With several inches of snow on the ground and daily temperatures still in single digits, the Southwestern Illinois College baseball team is still set to open its season -- in Georgia.
Looking to rebound after a disappointing 21-24 season a year ago, the Blue Storm heads south for a quick three-day, six game road trip beginning with a doubleheader on Thursday at Andrew, (Ga.) College.
SWIC will then take on Thomas College on Friday before battling South Georgia College on Saturday.
This will give veteran coach Neil Fiala gets his first look at his 2014 squad in game conditions.
SWIC is scheduled to open its home season on Feb. 20 against Fontbonne, but with snow still covering a frozen field, Fiala said he hopes to playing at home sometime in the last week of February.
"The long range forecast after this week for the rest of the month is higher then normal temperatures so I'm hoping we can be playing at home the week after next," Fiala said on Monday. "It's good that we can get away and go south for three days and play.
"This is a chance for the players to show what they can do. Nobody on this roster is ready in shape to play a lot yet even though some of them might think they are. This is basically a chance for all the players to get out there and show us what they can do.''
Led by a sophomore class which returns catcher Mark Hencken, infielder Adam Kunkel and centerfielder Cameron Lofton, the Blue Storm should be a much improved team this season. At least, that is the plan, Fiala said.
"I like what I've seen. We haven't been able to get outside but we've taken swings against live pitching in the batting cage and taken ground balls in the gym. About the only thing we haven't done is take fly balls. But there's nothing we can do about that," Fiala said. "I think we'll be better offensively. Last year we were inconsistent in several areas, but if you can score six-to-eight runs a game, it takes a lot of pressure off the pitching staff and defense. I think we'll have a good year."
Fiala said he is hoping Kunkel, a slick fielding second baseman who hit .348 with 22 RBIs and the speedy Lofton will ignite the offense at the top of the lineup.
"Adam (Kunkel) also stole 20 bases. He's got good speed and had a real solid season for us,'' Fiala said. "(Cameron) Lofton has good speed as well so we're hopeful they'll get on base for the guys behind them.''
Hencken hit .299 a year ago and should be among the top catchers in the Great Rivers Athletic Conference this spring. Former Granite City standout Jake Daily and fellow freshman Maciej Milas, of Mascoutah, also are quality catchers and Fiala said they will see playing time.
Other sophomores expected to help at the plate are former Nashville standouts Brett Warchol and third baseman John Goodrich. Warchol hit .262 while Goodrich struggled to a .193 spring a year ago.
Fiala also said he has high hopes for sophomore transfer Matt Spradlin, who played a year ago at Eastern New Mexico University.
"He played at Vianney in St. Louis in high school and we're hoping he can be a good run producer in the middle of the lineup,'' Fiala said of Spradlin. "He's got good power.''
Several freshmen have also shined in the preseason, but much prove themselves at the college level.
The Blue Storm pitching staff has the potential to be very good. Fiala said he has high hopes for several freshmen including Caleb Arbeiter, Jordan Felax, Andrew Witkowski, Zac Sparks and Brandon Hoguet.
The Blue Storm will rely heavily on returnees Dustin Dalton (3-4, 3.67 ERA), Kyle Wilson (2-1, 5.06 ERA) and Derek Dillenberger (2-1, 3.27 ERA, 3 saves).
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at 239-2661 or firstname.lastname@example.org