SHAWNEE – NCAA postseason baseball could become a reality for Oklahoma Baptist this season, but a lot will rest upon the shoulders of a number of new pitchers.
Oklahoma Baptist won two NCCAA national championships while going through its candidacy years and now turns its attention to the bigger stage with a group of players with almost no recollection of the program's NAIA years.
The Bison are ranked second in the Great American Conference and received votes in the NABC national preseason polls.
"Expectations are really high," said OBU Coach Bobby Cox, who enters his 34th season with 1302 wins. "We return a strong starting core and some new additions. We are excited to get started."
With most of his conference pitching rotation graduated, Cox will rely on some new faces to go with seniors Zach Fowler and A.J. Merkel.
I think there are a lot of candidates we saw in the fall. It's yet to be determined.
"I think we're going to be deep," Cox said. "There will be a lot of competition in that starting rotation. You lose a Jinny Parra that you can just pencil into that No. 1 spot and not think about it for the last three years and you lose Carson McPherson, you've lost some guys that have been counted on. We have five or six candidates that could do it. We'll throw whoever has the hot hand at the right time. Preseason will be extremely important for that."
Fowler was 5-1 last season with a 3.08 earned run average and Merkel, who started primarily in midweek games, was 5-2 with a 2.28 ERA. The only other Bison who saw time on the mound was Nick Burnham, who was 1-2 with a 3.71 ERA.
"Zach Fowler is back and he's really as good as you could hope for when he is healthy," Cox said. "Zach is just steady. He's going to throw a bucketful of strikes. You know what you're going to get every time with Zach. He's pretty trustworthy. AJ Merkel had a great junior year and he's the hardest worker we've got."
Juniors Albertus Barber, Thomas Shroder and Chris Kovach and senior lefty Mychal Yarbor will be angling for starting roles.
"Albertus Barber, a right hander transfer from Central Missouri, has really impressed throughout the fall and spring. He has a draft-able arm and throws in the low 90s. He has a chance to be really good," Cox said. "Mychal Yarbor is a St. Gregory's transfer we watched him last year. He will give us an option from the left side that we really needed. Thomas Shroder from UT-Arlington has shown flashes of being really, really good. Chris Kovach threw a lot of innings in junior college and he is another strike thrower and a good ground ball pitcher."
The bullpen includes a couple of 2017 first basemen – Nick Burnham and Bob English – to go along with newcomers Andrew Eppenbach and Hudson Pearson and red-shirt freshman Caleb Bly.
"Nick has a big-time up-side. Early on we're going to see how he fits in a closer's role," Cox said. "Eppenbach has shown flashes of being really good out of the pen. Caleb Bly is a work in progress. He's a guy we're really excited about. We hated to redshirt him because he had a great fall. Bob English from the left side is focusing on pitching this year and he's getting better every day. Person is a mid-year transfer gives us bullpen depth from the left side."
The glut of arms will create internal competition for work.
"It's a good problem," Cox said. "It's a deeper staff than we've seen the last couple of years. There will be a lot of competition for innings."
Four catchers, including a pair of strong senior starters in Juan Gonzales and Matt Poulin, will handle that staff.
"You have to go back a long time to find two catchers of the quality that we have." said Cox. "Juan has great, draft-able tools and has been really good. Matt Poulin, a transfer from Utah, is a tremendous defensive catcher. These two guys are pretty special defensively. It's a pleasure to watch. Caleb Stull and Trevor Tanner are quality kids who will come off the bench.
Cox also has a wealth of strength at first base with junior newcomers Jake Gozzo, Kaden Betsch and PJ Harris.
"Jake Gozzo is a big right-handed power hitting guy. He came from one of the best junior college programs in California, Orange Coast," Cox said. "Kaden Betsch had a good fall and he has a chance to be a big contributor. He's a solid bat. Harris has been really impressive in the little bit I've seen of him. We needed a left-handed bat with some punch and we got him. We have to find a place for him in the lineup at first or at DH."
OBU also will have new faces in the middle of the infield with a pair of juniors battling at second and junior Brett Bloomfield locked in at short. Red-shirt freshman Bryan Geurkink adds depth in the infield, Cox said.
"I feel like we had really good defense in the middle infield the past two years. This year, we have guys who are good defenders also, but we may have upgraded offensively," said Cox. "At second we've got two really good players battling it out with Brock Carter and Garrett McKee. Brock had a great year at Eastern. He kind of gives you a little bit of speed the lineup needs. He can also play in the outfield to keep his bat in the lineup. Garrett couldn't have had a better fall. Showed a lot of pop and is a plus-plus defender."
Bloomfield joins the club from Consumnes River.
"Brett Bloomfield had a really good fall. He really showed well defensively he has a chance to be really good," Cox said.
Zane Gelphman, who hit .322 last season with 10 home runs and a team-leading 64 RBI, returns at third base.
"Zane had a great year and picked up where he left off in the fall. He had a great summer in a wood bat league. He's got to be a guy in the center of what you do offensively," Cox said.
The batting leaders from 2017, Brett Berghammer (.377) and Josh Timms, (.376, 13 home runs) return in the outfield at center and left, respectively.
"Berghammer will move to center field after a great junior year. He's really a good defensive outfielder in addition to being a really good offensive guy," said Cox. "Josh Timms is a preseason All-American. He had some dealt with some back issues and is getting back to where he needs to be. He has a middle of the lineup guy and is a plus defender.
OBU adds a junior college All-American in Roy Verdejo in right field.
"Verdejo sat out of baseball last year but was a two-time All-Conference, and an All-American guy in junior college. I expect him to be a big contributor," Cox said.
Austin Cooper is back and play all three of those outfield positions along with Landon Harper to add depth to the outfield, Cox said.
A big key to the team's success has been Cox's assistants Chris Cox and Cody Painter.
"Those two guys have been the key to our success as they handle the recruiting and day to day coaching," Cox said. "When you have two guys who show up at 8 every morning and go to work, knowing what their roles are, is really pretty special. Cody has developed into one of the best young college pitching coaches. He's done some pretty innovative things with our guys."
OBU added graduate assistant Keach Ballard, a former Bison, to the staff for this season.
The Bison are picked second in the GAC, which is high praise as the league is considered a strong Division II conference.
The season begins Feb. 2 with a 6 p.m. game against Manhattan Christian at Bison Field at Ford Park.