• Greg Wille

BACK ON THE PROWL: Leopards aim to build on productive 2021, gain ground on national champ McLennan


TALENTED GROUP: Temple College's 2022 baseball team includes these six players who signed with NCAA Division I programs in November: second baseman Travis Chestnut (left) with Texas A&M, outfielder Joseph Redfield and shortstop Zane Spinn (Holland) with Sam Houston State, outfielder/designated hitter Clark Henry with Texas-San Antonio, right-handed pitcher Davis Pratt with Purdue and lefty pitcher Hudson Luce with Texas Tech. Coach Craig McMurtry's Leopards begin their season Sunday in Beeville, playing Galveston at 4 p.m. and Coastal Bend at 7. TC finished 39-16 last season after being eliminated in the NJCAA Region V Tournament by rival McLennan, the eventual Junior College World Series champion. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)





By GREG WILLE

TempleBeltonSports.com

gwille2@hot.rr.com


Temple College’s baseball team certainly produced an outstanding season in 2021. The Leopards climbed to No. 12 in the NJCAA Division I national rankings as they won 39 games, highlighted by a 22-3 home record and including two victories in Region V postseason play.

In addition, 15 players went on to continue their careers with four-year college programs, helping TC continue to raise its profile.

“We ended up with 39 wins last year and were ranked high and were playing for a conference championship all the way into the last week of the season,” longtime Temple head coach Craig McMurtry said Wednesday morning during an intrasquad scrimmage Wednesday morning at Danny Scott Sports Complex. “I think all of that has to help. Guys take notice, especially with all the social media (stuff) that’s out there now.”

McMurtry’s successful Leopards essentially had only one major problem last season: rival McLennan Community College.

Temple was winless in six May games against the Waco-based Highlanders (47-16), who won the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference championship by three games, then proceeded to grab the Region V crown and capture the Junior College World Series title in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Although the Leopards defeated Midland twice in the four-team regional tournament, losses to McLennan by 8-7 and 10-4 scores halted TC’s stellar season at 39-16.

As the 2022 campaign begins, head coach Mitch Thompson’s McLennan machine is No. 1 in the NJCAA Division I preseason rankings and the clear favorite to seize another NTJCAC championship.

McMurtry definitely is familiar with McLennan. The Troy graduate’s sharp pitching propelled the Highlanders to a third-place finish in the 1980 Junior College World Series, and the former major league pitcher has coached Temple against alma mater MCC ever since the Leopards revived their baseball program before the 1999 season. In fact, Temple clinched its first two trips to the JUCO World Series in 2006 and 2010 with victories over McLennan.

Although the Highlanders outscored the Leopards 42-24 in last year’s six matchups, their first clash in the regional at MCC’s Bosque River Ballpark was a one-run game and two of the regular-season duels were decided by two runs each.

So as McMurtry embarks on his 24th season as TC’s skipper, he isn’t putting too much thought or energy into what it will require to overtake the surging Highlanders. He simply wants his Leopards to be prepared to play their best baseball at every opportunity, regardless of the opponent.

“I don’t know that you approach it any differently as far as what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to do that every outing, as far as playing your game,” McMurtry said. “If the other team executes better than you, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing MCC or somebody’s JV in non-conference. If you don’t do your stuff, then you’re going to get beat.

“That’s pretty much what happened (against McLennan) last year. We had probably three games out of those six we lost that we could have won if we just make a pitch, make a play, whatever. But we didn’t. I don’t think it’s that big a deal. I think you just have to roll with it and say, ‘Hey, this is the next game and this is what we’re going to try to concentrate on and try to execute our stuff.’ Now, there’s always that rivalry thing with teams in your conference if you have success, or if don’t have success against that you want to try to fix some stuff.”

Armed with a combination of standout returning players and talented newcomers, Temple begins its 2022 season on Sunday with two games at Coastal Bend College in Beeville. The Leopards will play Galveston at 4 p.m. and Coastal Bend at 7. The Leopards were scheduled to play three games at Galveston’s season-opening tournament Friday and Saturday, but inclement weather canceled that annual event.

TC’s scheduled starting pitchers are freshman left-hander Hudson Luce against Galveston and sophomore righty Carter Poulson against Coastal Bend.

The Leopards’ home opener is a 2 p.m. game next Tuesday against the St. Edward’s junior varsity at Danny Scott Sports Complex.

Temple will play three-game series at home against Western Junior College Athletic Conference squads Howard and Odessa before the Leopards begin their 32-game NTJCAC schedule March 9 against North Central Texas in Gainesville. TC’s conference home opener is a noon doubleheader against North Central on Saturday, March 12.

The Leopards get their next crack at nemesis McLennan in April. The rivals will meet for doubleheaders on April 20 in Temple and on April 23 in Waco.

The NTJCAC's preseason coaches poll has Temple picked to finish in fourth place in the nine-team conference, behind McLennan, No. 12-ranked Grayson – which uncharacteristically missed postseason play last year – and Weatherford, which overtook TC in the regular season’s final week to nab second place in the league. Cisco, Hill, Ranger, North Central Texas and Vernon are picked to finish fifth through ninth, respectively.

“Grayson’s supposed to be really good this year. I think the (top) three obviously are McLennan, Grayson and Weatherford,” McMurtry said. “Weatherford’s got a bunch of transfer guys. Those three are slated to be your big dogs in conference. We’ll have a chance.”

Region V postseason play returns to its traditional format this year, with the NTJCAC’s top four teams taking on the WJCAC’s top four finishers in an eight-team, double-elimination tournament in mid-May at Texas Tech in Lubbock. The Region V champion will advance to the JUCO World Series in Grand Junction.

To be sure, Temple saw some very skilled, productive players depart after last season, headlined by all-region shortstop and NTJCAC Hitter of the Year Seth Stephenson, considered the fastest player during McMurtry’s tenure at TC. The explosive Stephenson, now at Tennessee, led the Leopards with a .383 batting average, a .674 slugging percentage, 74 hits, nine home runs, 13 doubles, eight triples and 47 runs batted in and ranked second with 31 stolen bases.

Right-handed starting pitchers Nathan Medrano (Houston) and Ulises Quiroga (Texas-San Antonio) left after earning a combined 17 wins and finishing third and fourth, respectively, among NTJCAC pitchers in earned-run average. Also moving on were outfielder/left-handed pitcher Dylan Blomquist (Texas-Tyler) from Belton and catcher Sammy Diaz (UTSA).

However, the Leopards still charge into the new season with plenty of talent and experience at their disposal.

Speedy, hard-nosed second baseman Travis Chestnut is a Texas A&M signee who led Temple with 35 steals and 55 runs as a freshman – despite missing nine games – while batting .324 with four homers, 28 RBI and a .460 on-base percentage.

“Travis started the whole year last year and put up good numbers, and hopefully he can do the same thing this year,” McMurtry said. “I haven’t seen a dropoff at all. I think he’s got to be confident in what he’s doing.”

Clark Henry was the all-region designated hitter as a TC freshman after batting .381 with five homers, 37 RBI and a team-best .468 on-base percentage. The hard-hitting UTSA signee is slated to play right field for the Leopards as a sophomore.

Fleet-footed center fielder Joseph Redfield improved throughout his freshman season, finishing with a .344 batting average, 33 RBI, four triples, seven doubles and 13 steals. Redfield signed in November with Sam Houston State, as did sophomore Zane Spinn, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound sophomore from Holland who’s succeeding Stephenson as Temple’s starting shortstop.

The Leopards’ other four-year commitments are sophomore third baseman Ty Tilson (South Carolina-Upstate), Luce (Texas Tech), sophomore right-handed starter Davis Pratt (Purdue), sophomore lefty reliever Mason Brandenberger (UTSA) and freshman righty David Stich (Angelo State).

However, the depth and potential quality of Temple’s lineup took a hit when returning starter Tilson (.316, 42 RBI, 11 doubles) suffered a labrum injury in his throwing arm during the holiday break, requiring surgery that McMurtry expects will force him to miss the entire season. Also, Pratt (3-0, 3.32 ERA) – projected to be in the starting rotation for conference play – is trying to overcome discomfort in his throwing shoulder.

McMurtry feels confident in the top three spots in Temple’s batting order, with speedsters Chestnut and Redfield poised to get on base ahead of slugger Henry. Redfield did not hit a homer in 43 games as a freshman, but the 6-2, 180-pound player added strength during the offseason and figures to provide more extra-base damage.

“There’s a couple of options with him. He’d be a good leadoff-type hitter, because he gets on base and makes contact and he can run,” McMurtry said of Redfield. “But also he’s come on with a little bit of pop in his bat. He’s obviously going to be at the top of the order somewhere from one to three.”

Spinn, Redfield’s future fellow Bearkat in Huntsville, is projected to bat in the fifth or sixth position as he transitions to a starting role. With Stephenson entrenched at shortstop last season, Spinn played in only 13 games and had just 23 at-bats. Spinn’s offseason development was aided greatly by playing summer ball in Kansas for the Great Bend Bat Cats of the wood-bat Sunflower Collegiate League.

“The big thing with Zane was just getting to play this summer. He didn’t play hardly at all last year because of Stephenson. He got a chance to go out and put a lot of at-bats together and had a good summer,” McMurtry said. “Defensively he was good last year, but we just couldn’t get him out there consistently. He’s done fine. He’s gotten stronger and gotten reps all summer and fall, and now getting going this spring is big for him. He works his rear end off. It’s crazy how hard he works.”

Tilson’s injury has opened the third base position to a competition that includes freshman Raithen Malone, an intense player who helped lead Mont Belvieu Barbers Hill to the Class 5A state championship last year along with fellow TC freshman Simon Larranaga, a first baseman. Other options at third are returning sophomores Mathew Armes and Andre Jackson.

Freshmen Larranaga (6-4, 215) and Chris Morrow are competing at first base.

Finding steady production at catcher is crucial for Temple after the departures of Diaz and Andruw Gonzales (McNeese State). The leading contenders are three freshmen: Temple Wildcats product Bryan Williams, Luke Banister – who redshirted last year at Blinn – and Hogan Heller.

With Redfield projected to start in center field and Henry in right, the possibilities in left include sophomores Caleb Hill – a Nicholls transfer – and dynamic athlete Jackson, who sparked the Leopards last season by batting .291 with two homers, 21 RBI and 10 steals in part-time duty.

Also in the mix for outfield playing time are sophomore Kyle Gates and freshmen Colby Christian and Dawson French.

As for TC’s pitching staff, the 6-3, 195-pound Pratt (23 strikeouts in 19 innings) is the only returner who’s projected to be in the starting rotation for conference. Sophomore righty Kolby Wilson (3-0, 5.92 ERA) also is in the mix but currently is dealing with an elbow issue.

An intriguing and physically imposing newcomer is the 6-7, 210-pound Luce, a hard-throwing lefty who can reach 94 mph with his fastball and also features a slider.

Other contenders for starting roles include righty Poulson, a transfer from Wharton County, and Dawson Tourney, a freshman lefty from Bakersfield, California.

Sophomore right-handers Marcus Mott (29 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings) and Jace Walker (21 Ks in 16 2/3 innings) return in the bullpen along with effective sophomore lefty Brandenberger (2.70 ERA, 20 Ks in 13 1/3 innings). They’ll get help from sophomore righty Trevor Glaser from Rogers, freshman righties Stich (Morehead State transfer), Fisher Roberts and Brandon Taylor and freshman southpaws Dash Albus and Evans Hendricks.

Sophomore right-hander Mason Bryant is a Texas transfer and a potential closer for the Leopards. The 6-5, 220-pounder pitches in the 92-93 mph range and can reach 97.

The 62-year-old McMurtry is entering his 24th season as head coach and also has served as athletic director since TC institution Danny Scott retired in 2013. Asked how much longer he plans to lead the Leopards’ baseball team, the former big pitcher who recorded his 700th coaching win last spring is keeping his future flexible.

McMurtry said he thoroughly enjoys working with longtime Leopards top assistant coach Frank Kellner and younger assistant Nathan Train, an emerging coach who plays a key role in Temple’s recruiting and strength and conditioning program as well as handling the team’s social media responsibilities.

“These guys are good. Frank's obviously really good, and Nathan’s really good. I’m just kind of taking it year by year. If I had to put a number on it, I don’t know that I could. I’m guessing two or three more, if somebody threatened me to come up with something,” said McMurtry, who seeks his fourth JUCO World Series trip with the Leopards and first since 2018.

“We’ll see, just according to what happens and how things go. I still enjoy being out here and working with the guys and stuff, but everybody has to look at when enough’s enough.”

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