JUCO champ Howard deals with injuries, but ranked 3rd

Howard (Texas) College had to deal with a lot of pressure on the way to winning the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series title last season.

This year, the Hawks have a different kind of adversity.

“We’ve had a lot of injuries,” coach Britt Smith said. “We started the year with six healthy pitchers. We could get a couple back this weekend. We’ve had multiple position guys out. Three guys have played in every game. It’s been mix and match. You do what you can do. At some point you get some back, guys with experience.”

The Hawks have played all their games to this point on the road because of weather.

Still, Howard has found ways to win games this season, compiling a 12-4 record, and is ranked third in the first National Junior College Athletic Association Division I regular season poll of 2010, released Wednesday.

“It’s been a total team effort,” Smith said. “We’ve pitched it well and someone plays well on the offensive end to be the guy. We’ve pieced it together.”

College of Southern Nevada, the preseason No. 1 team, remains the top-ranked team in the NJCAA poll.

The Coyotes (13-3) have wins over Chipola College of Florida, which was ranked third in the preseason but has fallen out of the rankings; Central Arizona, which was ranked sixth in the preseason; and Yavapai, another Arizona school, which was 11th in the preseason.

Bryce Harper, Baseball America’s No. 1 college prospect, is 4-0 with a 0.96 ERA and is hitting .356 with 18 RBI and four home runs for Southern Nevada. Harper gained national exposure when he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He then graduated from high school after his sophomore year and entered college as a 17-year-old so he could start preparing for a professional career.

San Jacinto (Texas) College-North (13-4) is ranked second, Connors State (Oklahoma) College (10-0) is fourth and Western Nevada Community College (12-3) fifth.

Rounding out the top 10 are Pitt (N.C.) Community College (10-1) , Gulf Coast Community College (14-5) and Miami-Dade College (11-2), both of Florida, Yavapai and Walters State Community College (5-3) of Tennessee.

The JUCO World Series begins May 29 at Suplizio Field. The tournament banquet will be at 7 p.m. on May 28 at Two Rivers Convention Center. Former big-league pitcher Dave Dravecky, who lost his pitching arm to cancer, will be the guest speaker.

Howard has a mix of freshmen and sophomores, but has only five players back from last year’s national championship team, three who played — pitchers Burch Smith and Blake Barnes and outfielder Joe Leftridge.

“We’re mostly playing freshmen now or whoever is healthy,” Smith said. “We have two pitchers who haven’t pitched. One had surgery before school started, one right after school started. A lot of it is pre-existing stuff.”

Howard is also juggling the pressure of being the defending national champion.

“Every team we play is trying to play last year’s team record (63-1),” Smith said. “We started preparing them for it last fall. Everybody coming to beat us whether we’re ready or not.”

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