Jefferson College hopes for a longer stay in JUCO

Last year’s JUCO World Series was a bit of a blur for the Jefferson (Mo.) College baseball team.

“Last year we stayed overnight in Kansas and got in late Thursday and played Saturday morning,” Jefferson coach Sam Carel said. “It was just too fast for our guys. They wanted to get in a day earlier and catch their breath.”

So instead, the Vikings boarded a bus at 3 a.m. Wednesday and drove straight through from Hillsboro, south of St. Louis, through Kansas and eastern Colorado, over the Rocky Mountains and into Grand Junction, arriving late Wednesday.

“They’re 18, 19-year-old kids,” Carel said. “They’ll sleep; they pass out on the couch anyway. It will give us some extra time in Grand Junction than at a hotel in western Kansas.”

Carel talked to his coaching staff when the Vikings (51-10) looked like they were going to be in contention to make a second straight trip to JUCO, and they asked the players, most of whom were on last year’s team, how they felt the trip went.

“The captains and all the players said they wanted to get out a day earlier, that everything was too fast,” Carel said. “They were new to it. It’s always fast (with the festive atmosphere and hype) but when we got out there we were rushing.

“All the events with JUCO are awesome events and we want to be part of them and love doing them but we needed time as a group to catch our breath and relax for 12 hours.”

The Vikings were headed back home just as quickly last season, going 0-2, playing the first game Saturday and Sunday and losing both.

“We had a blast and it was awesome but whoa, what the heck happened?” Carel said. “We didn’t get a chance to soak it in and enjoy the moment.”

Those freshmen have grown up into sophomores and have that all-important experience at the World Series now. It parlayed into a 51-win season and a No. 4 national ranking.

“Getting out a day earlier with a veteran group that went out there before should slow things down,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’ll win, but it will make our guys more comfortable.”

He spent some time talking to fellow Midwestern coach Marc Rardin of Iowa Western about learning from past experiences.

“We’ve modeled things after what he’s done. When they won it all, they got out there and practiced twice a day,” Carel said. “We’re doing to do the same thing, keep our kids in a routine they are familiar with.

“We don’t want to hide them from (all the activities). It’s my job and the coaches’ job to make sure they enjoy everything and experience what’s great about Grand Junction but also make sure there is a routine that’s a normal work week.”

The Vikings overcame losing two of their top four pitchers to arm injuries early in the season. Dane Gronewald was 4-1 when he was injured and AJ Walkenhorst had pitched in two games when he was lost for the season.

“Early on it was a buzz around our group that we had four legitimate arms that were going to carry us,” Carel said. “We lost two to injury and we have two left.”

Dalton Friend, a 6-foot-3 sophomore left-hander, is 11-0, and Tyler Thompson, a 5-1 sophomore righty, is 11-1.

“Thompson started Game 1 for us out there last year,“Carel said. “Both of them are all-region selections and they’ve been our two guns all year long.”

The Vikings hit .340 as a team, led by first baseman Fred Ford, the Region 16 player of the year, who is hitting .432 with 68 RBI and 13 home runs. Shortstop Brett Wiley is a .409 hitter with 59 RBI and a half-dozen home runs.

Brendon Neel, a sophomore outfielder, provides more power with 15 home runs and 51 RBI.

“It’s been a team effort. We swing it well and our defense has been really good all year long. The beginning of the year it was pitching and then it was more offense and all year it’s been defense.”

Jefferson has a .966 team fielding average, and in the district tournament made plays to keep innings short so they could get back in and hit.

“The game we won to clinch to get here was exactly what we’ve been doing all year,” Carel said. “We had no errors, we just made plays. We weren’t leaving plays on the field, turning the double play, getting and out, not an error. You turn that double play here and make that play there. We’ve done a good job trying to limit the amount of plays on the field.”

With so much experience on the roster, Carel is feeling good about the Vikings’ chances.

“We may go two and out again, but we’re going to be better prepared than last year,” he said. “It’s one thing in JUCO to go in one year with a bunch of sophomores and the next year with a bunch of freshmen. We’re doing it again back-to-back with the guys who went last year.”


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