College Sports

Young Southwestern Illinois College team seeks rapid improvement as ‘16 baseball season begins

Southwestern Illinois College baseball coach Neil Fiala will receive a big honor when he is inducted into the NJCAA Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame later this spring. But at the present time, the Blue Storm’s veteran skipper has more pressing issues to keep him occupied.

Entering his 23rd season at the helm of the Blue Storm, Fiala has five quality pitchers returning — all of whom came out of the bullpen — and three solid infielders back for their sophomore seasons.

But looking to rebuild the Blue Storm outfield with two sophomore transfers and a group of talented but unproven young freshmen, there are questions surrounding the Blue Storm program heading into the 2016 season.

“It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. We’ve got a lot of new faces,” Fiala said. “We do have most of our infield back and five quality pitchers returning. But all of those guys threw out of the bullpen last year. Nobody will be going nine innings at this time of year anyway and so they’ll all get to see what they can do. I do like what I see from this group.”

Currently 4-0 on the young season after sweeping both Three Rivers College and Illinois Central College, SWIC returns three players who started in the infield last year in first baseman Luke Bakula, second baseman Jacob Monti and third baseman and former O’Fallon standout Collin Holton.

Sophomore Ken Wilson (Red Bud) who is competing with former Belleville West standout Matt Klostermann, a sophomore, and Adam Dalton, a sophomore, for the starting job at shortstop, while Ray Adams, a sophomore, will be a key backup infielder because he can play more then one position. Austin Deal will back up Bakula at first base.

Fiala does however need to rebuild the Blue Storm outfield. SWIC lost a lot of experience and leadership from its team which reached the NJCAA Region 24 Final Four a year ago. In order to do that Fiala brought in DeShawn Lindsay, who played last year at Mississippi Delta Junior College and Blake Thompson, a sophomore who played last year at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

Also looking for playing time in the Blue Storm outfield are Ben Hankhammer (Althoff), Caleb Buhs (Civic Memorial), Derrick Rozycke (Freeburg) and Keith Sanders, who is from Chicago.

“We’ve got a pair of guys who played college baseball last year in Lindsay and Thompson. They just didn’t play here. Lindsay is a kid player who can just flat out track the ball down and he’ll play center field for us,” Fiala said. “Thompson looks like he can hit the ball a little bit and Ben (Hankhammer) has also looked good in the outfield in the early going.’’

SWIC will also depend heavily on three freshmen catchers to handle a solid pitching staff. Freshman Jake Wilson is a solid backstop who had a good season a year ago at Belleville West, while Dylan McEwen (Collinsville) and Austin Nelson (Francis Howell North) will also get long looks in the early going of the season.

“I like all three of our catchers and with the number of doubleheaders that we play, they will all get a chance to show what they can do,” Fiala said. “Sometimes you start a season and the lineup may be pretty well set except for a spot of two. This is a year where there are a lot of spots open. Again it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

“These first couple of weeks will be a chance to see what we’ve got and then we’ll we’re going to do.”

Five pitchers — Anthony Garza, Milton Pinkston, Jared Nelson, Austin Nunnery and Tyler Herbert — all return to lead what may be the true strength of the Blue Storm. All five were brilliant at times while working out of the SWIC bullpen last season and a few will be moved into the rotation.

Freshman Zach Mathes is also expected to be a key for SWIC on the mound after sitting out last season with an injury as will highly touted freshmen Tyler Greene and Dylan Jones. Fiala is also hopeful Hankhammer, Pete Baumgartner and Corey Vogel will be able to help out as lefthanders, either as starters or relievers.

Zacary Cato, Brandon Contratto, Dylan Weh and Connor Waltsgott are others who should provide depth on the pitching staff.

Dean Criddle: 618-239-2661, @CriddleDean