Buccaneers lean on leadership and experience in quest for Grand Junction

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BRENHAM, Texas — The Blinn College baseball team returns 13 players who played a significant role on last year’s team that tallied 37 wins and finished one game shy of the Region XIV South Zone Division title.

“We hope to improve week-to-week and have a team that competes and wins the regional tournament so that we can get back to Grand Junction, Colo., for the World Series,” head coach Harvey McIntyre said. “We all have the same goal and our returning players are great leaders. They bring back a great amount of experience and give us a lot to be optimistic about this season.”

Returning on the mound as starters are Jacob Millender (Houston), Jackson Leath (Waxahachie), Ryan Day (San Antonio), Brice Armistead (Katy), and Brandon Symmank (Cypress).

Millender was selected as a Texas-New Mexico Junior College Coaches Association All-Star after finishing 2018 with a 5-1 record and posting a 3.39 earned run average in 61 innings. He was second on the team with 65 strikeouts.

A top prospect and University of Tennessee commit, Leath enters the season with a power right-handed arm and is expected to be a frontline starter for the Buccaneers. Day is a left-hander with three pitches, including a breaking ball with a lot of depth.

Armistead and Symmank could see time as starters, but are versatile enough to fill roles in the bullpen.

Freshmen Jace Hutchins (College Station) and John Chomko (Tomball) are candidates for starting roles, along with Texas Tech University transfer Richard Gilbert (San Antonio).

Chomko was named the Houston Class-5A Pitcher of the Year in 2018, while Hutchins “emerged as one of the best freshman arms” this Fall, McIntyre said. The lefty Gilbert was an all-state pitcher in high school, leading San Antonio Johnson High School to the playoffs all four years of high school, including the state championship game in 2016.

Candidates in the chase for the closer role are Armistead, and freshmen Grayson Smith (Georgetown), Kyle Gough (Cypress), and Otto Stacey (Spring).

“We have more players capable of being our closer this year than we have ever had,” McIntyre said. “They all have the stuff to get the job done. We are just looking to see who does it the best.”

Returning as relief pitchers are Tyler Henson (Abilene), Matthew Swick (Cypress), and Henry Bird (Alvin).

Henson posted 20 strikeouts in 11.1 innings last season using a dominant breaking ball, while Swick is a situational relief pitcher who can throw strikes. Bird is an efficient pitcher with a good breaking ball.

Joining them in the bullpen are freshmen AJ Irvin (Kingwood), Walker Zander (Houston), Judson Schaper (Texas City), and Gavin LaBruyere (Montgomery). Irvin throws a plush breaking ball, Zander has a solid sinker, Schaper has “the best changeup on the team,” and LaBruyere is a strike pumper, McIntyre said.

“Our bullpen is as deep as it ever has been and I am encouraged by our pitchers’ ability to win games every time they touch the mound,” he said. “We are going to have top-to-bottom depth on the mound, so we should be able to compete in every game and keep runs off the scoreboard.”

Blinn returns three to the infield in shortstop Cameron Gibbons (Houston), and utility infielders Gray Rodgers (Dallas), and Jake Miller (Round Rock).

Gibbons and Rodgers were Texas-New Mexico Junior College Baseball selections. Gibbons finished the 2018 season with a .313 batting average and was fourth on the team with 46 hits. Rodgers was third on the team with 50 hits and was second on the team with 10 stolen bases. Miller played in 41 games and finished the season with a .246 batting average in 126 at-bats.

Freshmen Connor Klussmann (Brenham), Westley Schields (Cypress), Cody Cegielski (Sugar Land), Dallas Baptist University transfer Matt Crossley (Leander), and redshirt freshman Blake Winkelman (Needville) also will add value to the infield. Klussman is a grinder who can play multiple positions, and Schields can defend at many positions at a high level and is a switch hitter. Cegielski is “one of our best infielders” who can really defend, McIntyre said. Crossley plays first base and is a right-handed power hitter, while Winkelman can play first base and left field and offers a lot of value as a hitter.

“It would not surprise me if we finished close to the top of the nation in fielding percentage,” McIntrye said. “These guys are extremely athletic and engaged in what they do from a defensive standpoint.”

All-conference, all-region, and all-star selection Alec Sanchez (Waxahachie) returns mainly as a catcher after leading Blinn with a .360 batting average in 172 at-bats last year. He led Blinn with 62 hits and 12 doubles and was second on the team with 42 RBIs and 37 walks.

Sophomore Kevin House (Coppell) and freshmen Preston Hoffart (Magnolia), Nick Wolff (Houston), and Bailey Deramus (Burton) will join Sanchez behind the plate.

Reggie McCalister (League City) and Richard Bailey (Houston) return as outfielders. McCalister will hit at the top of the order and gives quality at-bats, while Bailey can play anywhere in the outfield and is coming off of a good Fall. McCalister posted a .280 batting average and .512 on base percentage in 82 at-bats last season.

New to the outfield are University of Louisiana at Lafayette transfer Blake Faecher (Cypress) and freshmen Brett Minninch (Colleyville), Tyler Russell (West Columbia), Cody Vinklarek (Bastrop), and Greyson Kash (Sour Lake).

Faecher offers speed in the outfield and can change the game with a swing of the bat. Minninch is 6-foot-5 and has tremendous power as a left-handed hitter, while Russell is a left-handed outfielder who also can pitch. Vinklarek is a top-of-the-order left-handed hitter who can play center and right field with an extremely accurate arm, and Kash is a corner outfielder who can provide production in the middle of the order as a power right-handed hitter.

“This is one of the most athletic and versatile group of players that we have had, which creates depth and different matchups for each opponent,” McIntyre said. “I love what this group is about and their commitment from the beginning. I am excited to see how far they go.”

Blinn College opens the season on the road at 2 p.m. today against Navarro College.