MOVING FORWARD: After disruptive 2020, McMurtry believes TC baseball can succeed with talent, depth
Updated: Jan 31, 2021
SIGN OF THE TIMES: Three current Temple College baseball players in November signed to continue their careers with NCAA Division I programs: freshman catcher Andruw Gonzales (left) with McNeese State, freshman shortstop Seth Stephenson with Tennessee and sophomore pitcher Nathan Medrano with Houston. After their 2020 season was limited to 24 games because of the COVID-19 pandemic, head coach Craig McMurtry's Leopards begin their 2021 season today with a noon doubleheader against the St. Edward's University junior varsity in Austin. TC's home opener is against 14th-ranked Navarro at 2 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 12 at Danny Scott Sports Complex. (Temple College photo/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
For Temple College head baseball coach and athletic director Craig McMurtry, 2020 certainly was a year unlike any other.
First, his Leopards' spring season was canceled in mid-March after only 24 games (they went 12-12 overall and 2-4 in conference play) because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Next, McMurtry had to hire two head basketball coaches to replace the pair of colleagues and friends he had worked with throughout his first 22 years at TC: Kirby Johnson (33 seasons with the men) and Kim Sebek (22 seasons with the women).
The NJCAA then decided to delay the start dates for its volleyball and basketball seasons from the customary fall semester to the spring semester in January.
And around Thanksgiving, the 61-year-old McMurtry contracted the coronavirus and had to deal with its exhausting effects, as did his wife, Jo Anna, several days later. Both of them were able to make full recoveries after quarantining at home in Troy.
“It's been weird,” McMurtry said in an understatement from his office on Thursday, two days before his Leopards begin their 2021 season with Saturday's noon doubleheader in Austin against the St. Edward's University junior varsity.
As both a coach and athletic director, McMurtry has been tasked with learning and following the guidelines and protocols to help TC's coaches and players navigate their way through COVID-19 in the hope of competing on their respective courts and fields as soon, as much and as healthy as possible.
“Oh, yeah. I mean, every day you're wondering what's going to happen, because obviously you don't want anyone to get it,” said McMurtry, the former major league pitcher who's in his 23rd season guiding TC's baseball program. “It's how it affects them first of all health-wise but then second of all how it affects the team and how it affects games and stuff like that.
“And then it's having to figure out all the different things we have to do to try to keep the guidelines like they're supposed to be and the protocols. It affects practice with guys having to stay apart and wear their masks – especially the indoor sports a little more than the outdoor sports, because (in baseball) we can get away from each other.”
McMurtry said TC's baseball team has had “six or seven” players test positive for COVID-19 in January after reporting zero cases during the fall semester, other than his own. He said three or four players currently are in quarantine or awaiting test results.
“Obviously the school is trying to be as cautious as possible with everything,” he said.
Because the NJCAA decided not to count last baseball season toward players' eligibility, Temple has an abnormally large roster this spring after several players who were classified as sophomores last year decided to return. McMurtry said the Leopards currently have 46 or 47 players in the program, giving them more roster depth than they're accustomed to having.
“Maybe my first year (1998-99) we might have had around 50, because we had to. But this is definitely the most we've had in the last 20. Normally it's 35 to 38 max,” he said. “Honestly, the guys that stayed were guys that were pretty good players and didn't have a place to go (as far as playing opportunities at four-year schools), and they wanted to come back for that last year. Really we didn't have to tell anybody, 'Hey, you need to go (elsewhere),' which is good.”
McMurtry said some of his third-year sophomores who already have earned associate degrees have had difficulty finding enough available hours to take. In addition, the NJCAA ruled that this season will not count against players' eligibility, so each player will retain his sophomore or freshman status next season. As such, McMurtry has the flexibility to give some players small amounts of playing time this spring rather than having to decide whether to have them sit out completely to gain a redshirt year.
After starting the season with five games away from home, Temple will begin its home schedule with a game against No. 14-ranked Navarro at 2 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 12 at Danny Scott Sports Complex before the Leopards travel to Corsicana the next day to battle the Bulldogs in a noon doubleheader. TC's non-conference slate includes four-game home series against No. 17 Odessa (Feb. 19-20) and Midland (Feb. 26-27).
The Leopards' 32-game schedule in the always-competitive Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference begins March 10 with a 2 p.m. doubleheader at Weatherford, followed by those teams' 1 p.m. doubleheader in Temple on Saturday, March 13. TC won't face rival McLennan – where McMurtry pitched in college – until the final conference series. The No. 5 Highlanders will host the Leopards on May 5 in Waco and then visit Temple on May 8 to conclude the regular season.
Perennial heavyweights McLennan and No. 7 Grayson – which plays TC in mid-April – are favored to contend for the NTJCAC championship, with the Leopards most likely battling Cisco, Hill, North Central Texas, Ranger, Vernon and Weatherford for the league's two remaining berths in the NJCAA Region V Tournament.
“Nothing's really changed,” McMurtry said. “I think MCC, Grayson and Weatherford got a lot of D-I transfers coming in. They're going have arms, a bunch of guys who can throw in the 90s and guys who can hit the ball out of the park. Obviously their lineups are pretty tough and their pitching rotations are really tough.”
However, the Leopards' veteran boss isn't conceding anything when it comes to his team's aspirations after a fall season full of productive intrasquad scrimmages.
“The only poll I saw was our coaches' poll from the conference, and we were picked fourth or fifth. But that's just a poll. They don't mean anything either way,” McMurtry said. “Our goal is to win conference. We're going to go out there and compete, and we're hoping that we can run some guys out there that are going to be able to pitch and we're going to score some runs.
“If we can find a way to finish at the top of the conference, that's awesome. But the bottom line again like every year for us is to finish in the top four.”
The Region V postseason format for this season has been altered, although McMurtry said the change was made – in large part to help teams keep their pitching staffs fresher – before COVID-19 made its presence felt. In years past, the NTJCAC's top four teams and the top four from the Western Junior College Athletic Conference got together at one location for an eight-team, double-elimination tournament, with the Region V champion advancing to the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colorado.
This year, each conference champion will host a four-team (two from each league), double-elimination regional tournament in mid-May. The two survivors will move on to a best-of-three super regional May 21-22, to be hosted by the higher-seeded team or the WJCAC representative this year if both league champions reach the title round. The super regional champ will advance to Grand Junction.
Temple won the Region V championship in 2006 and 2010, then made its third JUCO World Series trip in 2018 when the Leopards placed third in the regional tournament but were selected to represent the region in Grand Junction after league rivals McLennan and Cisco were removed from the tournament – a highly controversial decision – because of their on-field altercation during the championship round.
As far as Temple's 2021 team, one player it will rely on heavily is switch-hitting shortstop Seth Stephenson, a second-year freshman who's signed with Tennessee and is attracting interest from professional scouts thanks to his top-notch speed, which longtime TC assistant coach Frank Kellner described as “world-class.” The 5-foot-9, 155-pound Stephenson has been timed at 6.29 seconds in the 60-yard dash, which McMurtry and Kellner said makes him the fastest Leopard they've coached.
“He's getting a lot of looks from the pro guys right now. We've had scouts come out to practice to time him and watch batting practice and watch him take ground balls,” McMurtry said of projected leadoff batter Stephenson, who got off to a blazing start in 2020 with a .318 average, six triples, three doubles and seven runs batted in along with 24 runs and eight stolen bases in 23 games. “He can hit the ball out and he's got great range at shortstop.”
McMurtry said athletic freshman and Holland graduate Zane Spinn (6-3, 185) – younger brother of former TC standout Seth Spinn – is expected to back up Stephenson at shortstop but could slide to another defensive spot if his hitting improves.
Third-year sophomore Max Puls returns in left field and is viewed as a major run producer in the heart of Temple's lineup. The product of Palm Desert, California, batted .322 with five home runs and a team-leading 42 RBI in 2019. Two more third-year sophomores are in the running at first base: Robert Shaw, who paced the Leopards with eight homers in 2019, and Cole Payne, who had four homers and 18 RBI in 2020.
Third base appears to be an area of strength for Temple. Raul Aragon batted .385 with 13 RBI as a freshman last year; hard-hitting freshman Clark Henry transferred in after Angelina canceled its 2021 season; and Ty Tilson is a talented freshman from Georgetown.
The competition at second base includes three freshmen: returner Jacob Elizondo and newcomers Mathew Armes and Travis Chestnut.
Joining Puls in the outfield will be second-year freshman and Belton graduate Dylan Blomquist (6-3, 180) in center field. TC's coaches said Blomquist is back to full strength physically after offseason surgery to repair a kneecap injury that he suffered last spring and aggravated during the summer.
Blomquist also is a capable left-handed pitcher who can start and/or relieve, so fleet-footed freshmen Andre Jackson and Joseph Redfield likely will get plenty of playing time in center when Blomquist is on the mound. Jackson is an Odessa transfer whose father, Andre, played basketball at TC for Johnson in the 1990s.
The candidates in right field include returning freshmen Clay Bradford and David Wilson and freshman newcomer Kyle Gates.
The Leopards' top catcher is second-year freshman and McNeese State signee Andruw Gonzales (6-0, 190), a skilled thrower who in 2020 batted .452 with one home, five doubles, nine RBI and 12 runs in 14 games. Temple's other catching options include returning freshman Luke Ely, transfer Sammy Diaz and freshmen Jack Hamilton and Oscar Hernandez.
The Leopards' third early Division I signee is sophomore pitcher Nathan Medrano, a University of Houston-bound right-hander who transferred to TC after compiling 86 strikeouts in 109 2/3 innings in two seasons at Division II St. Edward's. McMurtry said Medrano, who's from Gilroy, California, has an effective mix of four pitches and throws hard for his size (6-0, 170), with his fastball in the 88-92 mph range.
“Medrano was a good pickup for us,” McMurtry said.
An experienced pitcher with similar stuff is returning freshman Ulises Quiroga (6-2, 185), who went 2-3 in five starts in 2020. He recorded 29 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings but finished with a 10.22 earned-run average after a few rough outings.
Returning freshman righty Jack Brinley will contend for a spot in the starting rotation after going 2-1 with a 4.34 ERA and 19 strikeouts last year. McMurtry said Blomquist and Brinley likely will be TC's starting pitchers Saturday at St. Edward's.
Two hard-throwing righties also are in the starting mix: sophomore A.G. Yowell (6-6, 200), a Texas-San Antonio transfer, and freshman Davis Pratt (6-3, 185), a transfer from Paradise Valley (Ariz.).
For the late-game relief roles, third-year sophomore and finesse lefty Diego Fernandez, Payne and returning freshmen Jackson Sioson (3-1, one save in 2020) and Brian Shadrick (Belton) are contending along with freshmen Mason Brandenberger, Cole Van Poppel and Jace Walker.