DIFFERENT BREED: Cowley College brings pitching, gap power to JUCO
This Cowley College (Kansas) baseball team is not like the slugging Tigers that won back-to-back championships in the late 1990s.
“In years past we’ve come out there and been able to swing the bats and score runs and do our thing. This group, we can pitch it,” said coach Dave Burroughs, in his 29th season at Cowley. “Our pitching was real good all weekend (during the Central District tournament), and we play really good defense.”
It’s not like the Tigers can’t hit, and although Burroughs said they’ve played “really well” the past three weeks, they were no slouches earlier in the season. Any team that wins 40-plus games (44-16) knows what it’s doing, and Cowley knows how to get on base and manufacture runs.
“We’ve got some good, solid every-day guys. We hit doubles. That’s what we do,” said Burroughs.
Gap power is the Tigers’ calling card, with a whopping 120 doubles and 47 home runs. Caleb Eldridge, Cowley’s freshman first baseman, has 17 of the team’s home runs and 19 doubles, with 74 RBI. Connor Litton is also a doubles machine with 23 and has driven in 63 runs.
“We’ve been pretty good about getting to first base. We can walk and split some gaps and hit doubles, hit and run a little bit,” Burroughs said. “We’re not a track team by any means, but we run OK. We’re not overly fast, but we’re athletic and physical. It’s gonna be a fun group; people will be excited to see them.”
Almost as excited as the Tigers will be to see Grand Junction again after missing the past six national tournaments.
“It’s an addictive place, no question,” Burroughs said. “Once you’ve been there, it’s the only place to be on Memorial Day in the country.”
Eldridge transferred to Cowley from Oklahoma State after the fall semester and made an immediate impact.
“He wanted more playing time and wasn’t going to get on the field (at OSU). He’s really grown into that 4-hole hitter, a lot of power,” Burroughs said. “He hit a missile (during the district tournament) and everybody in the dugout just went, ‘Oh, my.’ The wind was out of the east, and that ballpark (Lawrence-Dumont Stadium in Wichita) is humongous. He killed it.”
With the BBCor bats cutting down big offensive numbers, Burroughs said playing styles have changed, although the flat-seam baseballs the NJCAA adopted this season have brought some of the offense back.
“We have to have a more situational club. We get guys on, hit and run and execute getting guys over and scoring without benefit of a hit,” he said. “The guys have accepted who they are. It’s more of the ‘60s, ‘70s style. Gorilla ball in this part of the country is over now. At Suplizio it can be up and down there. It might not be the same. You’ve got to recruit to your ballpark. For us, it’s pitching and defense and being able to field bunts.”
Burroughs likes the way his club handled postseason play, getting solid pitching and defense — and the hitting really kicked in.
“There were some times early we scuffled a little bit, but it all just came together,” Burroughs said. “It was amazing to watch all three facets of the game clicking at the same time. We scored early (in the season) and didn’t pitch. There was a phase where we couldn’t catch it, couldn’t hit it. The last three and a half weeks it started to come together.
“You talk about the ‘it’ factor. Who knows what it is, but we found it. There’s a confidence thing you can’t coach.”
It took awhile even for the coaching staff to figure out the style this team was most comfortable playing, and then some time to accept that style.
“We’re not going to score 13 runs in the top of the ninth like in 2001,” he said. “That’s not who we are. We’ve accepted that even from a coaching standpoint, who we are, how we play. It started clicking for us.”
During the district playoffs, the Tigers’ pitching staff dominated, going deep into games and saving the bullpen. In fact, Carson LaRue and Scott Engler pitched back-to-back complete games in the first two rounds. Tucker White went 7 1/3 innings in the semifinal game, a 5-1 win over No. 6 Neosho County, and Ben Strahm matched that in the championship game, which the Tigers won 8-2 over Johnson County. Closer Justin McGregor made two short appearances to close out the final two games of the tournament.
They might not all be flame-throwers, but, Burroughs said, “They can pitch. That’s what makes them good.”
In the Central District tournament, Cowley County, which averages just more than eight runs a game, outscored its opponents 28-4. In the best-of-three sub-district series against Butler County, Cowley won 11-1 and 15-0.
In early April, the Tigers went through a four-game losing streak, including a 26-23 loss to Western Oklahoma State, followed by a 3-2 setback against Independence Community College.
Since an 11-5 loss to Highland Community College on April 21, the Tigers flipped things around. They haven’t lost since, bringing a 15-game winning streak into Grand Junction.
“We tell our guys it’s the team that plays the best,” Burroughs said. “That’s what wins this time of year.”