Salukis ready to hit diamond, live up to high expectations
When a team has received recognition and high rankings before the season starts, sometimes a coach will say the players do not pay attention to such hype.
Southern Illinois University (SIU) Head Baseball Coach Ken Henderson, whose team has already reaped honors this year, is not one of those coaches.
“It's human nature to look at that kind of stuff and it's human nature to like to hear good things about yourself,” Henderson told the Southwest Illinois News. “The thing is, it won't affect this club because we're doing the right things to get there.”
When the Salukis start their regular season — scheduled for Feb. 18 against Stetson in DeLand, Florida — they will have high expectations on the strength of being projected to finish second in the Missouri Valley Conference based on a poll of the league's coaches, according to the school's athletic website.
Despite that strong ranking, Henderson said that this year's Salukis will not get full of themselves because the program has not reached key milestones.
“The goal and the expectation is to win the league and then get into the NCAA tournament,” he said. “We haven't accomplished that, and until we do, we haven't done anything. And so our kids know that, and they're extremely driven.”
This season is the one the program has been aiming toward for a couple of years, Henderson said. And the win totals confirm that something has been building. Last season, according to siusalukis.com, the squad had a 31-25-1 record, which was an significant improvement after going 12-46 in 2015.
A core group of players who have been through much of the growth return this season.
Three Salukis were named to the preseason All-MVC squad: pitchers Michael Baird and Chad Whitmer as well as first baseman Logan Blackfan, all regular-season all-league picks in 2016. Three other returners — infielders Connor Kopach and Greg Lambert, and closer Ryan Netemeyer — earned league honors last season, as well.
Baird has been named the preseason MVC Pitcher of the Year by Baseball America, according to a report on siusalukis.com.
Kopach, Lambert, catcher Nick Hutchins and outfielder Ryan Smith spent much of last summer playing in leagues, according to the team's online preview. Kopach, Lambert and Hutchins shined in the Northwoods League, while Smith led the West Coast League in on-base percentage.
Henderson praised the team's makeup and belief as the season dawned.
“They believe they can get it done,” Henderson said. “There's a big difference between hope and expectations.”
That confidence will be needed to navigate this year's MVC. Henderson called the league one of the best in the country, and this season should be no exception.
Dallas Baptist was the preseason favorite for the league crown per the coaches poll, with Missouri State just behind SIU in the rankings. Henderson said Wichita State, which was a young squad in 2016, will be as talented as anybody in the league, and that Indiana State always has a strong club and brings good pitching.
“I think the league will be as good this year as it's been in many, many years,” he said. “It's going to be a challenge.”
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