Expectations for the baseball program at Arkansas Tech have never been higher, as the Wonder Boys, led by sixth-year head coach Dave Dawson, build off a record-breaking year in 2014 and begin this 2015 season ranked No. 17 in the nation and picked second in Great American Conference preseason polls.
Last year’s ball club finished 44-12 overall and 25-5 in the GAC, setting records in both total and conference wins. The Wonder Boys got hot at the end of the season, winning 22 consecutive games en route to claiming their first outright conference title since ’92, as well as becoming the first Wonder Boys team ever to make an NCAA tournament appearance.
But this is a new year with new goals — goals which Dawson says exceed 2014’s showing.
“We want to be better than we were last year,” he said. “We want to win every game, but realistically we know that there will be games that we’ll lose. Despite that, we want to win a National Championship; we have enough talent, so it’ll come down to making plays in pressure situations.”
Tech is returning 18 players from 2014’s team, and Dawson said this experienced depth, specifically on the mound, makes them a well-rounded group capable of winning in different ways.
Seniors Aaron Johnson (6-3, 4.30 era) and Randy Vallejo (tied as Division II leader with 18 saves), junior Zach Skelton (6-3, 6.06 era) and sophomore Trent Armstrong (7-1, 2.54 era) bolstered Tech’s defensive success last year, and Dawson says he thinks they’ve improved their abilities and can do it once again.
“I feel confident we’ll have a strong pitching staff and deep bullpen to go to,” he said. “Aaron Johnson and Trent Armstrong will start for us. Randy Vallejo will have a huge target on his back because of the performance he put up last year. But past those guys, nothing is set. We’ve got three or four guys we could either bring out of the pen or start too.”
At the plate he said senior first baseman Kris Ayers, who batted .331, had four home runs and led the team with 43 RBIs, will be counted on to hit for power and drive in runs. Senior catcher Patrick Castleberry (.303 BA, 6 HR and 37 RBIs), who earned All-Arkansas honors alongside Vallejo last year, has been consistent throughout his time at Tech, Dawson said, and he will serve as a dependable hitter in the middle of the order.
Dawson said the offseason has gone well, as expected, because his guys are all motivated to put in the work needed to achieve their goal: to bear the moniker of National Champions.
He also said he sees the team adopting a similar approach to the game as last year’s squad, and he thinks their athleticism and running ability will prove beneficial in the field and on the bases.
“We’re still in the stages of trying to fix each and every thing we’re not good enough at,” he said. “But at some point in the year we’ll have to get lucky because there is hardly any drop off in the level of teams we will be facing.”
Dawson mentioned Tech’s three-game-series season opener against Missouri Western State beginning Saturday at Tech Field at 1 p.m. as a crucial test that needs to result in a win in order to set the tone.
Dawson’s work at the helm last year earned him Coach of the Year honors from Natural State Baseball, NCAA Central Region Coach of the Year honors from the National College Baseball Writers Association, as well as being named the Great American Conference Coach of the Year.
But the success has been a collaborative effort, and none would have been possible without the on-field performance of the 2014 Wonder Boys that earned them Team of the Year honors from Natural State Baseball.
“We’ve been able to get so many great guys because of both the growth of the university and its geographic location,” he said. “Everything we’ve done has been about building a culture around winning mind sets, so that’s what we’ll continue to do.”