For the Smith-Cotton baseball team, the new season brings a new coach, but the Tigers are having no trouble adjusting to playing for Jud Kindle.
“We all mesh with him perfectly,” said senior outfielder Chance McMullin. “He’s a player’s coach. He knows what we like and he works hard and we respect that so we work hard.”
Most of the Tigers know Kindle through work with the Kindle Sports Academy so they already knew him well before he was named to succeed Jeff Mays last summer.
“I’ve been working with him for most of my life,” said senior first baseman Cody Kozak. “I like him. He’s been working us hard.”
Under Kindle, the Tigers are learning to play small ball.
“I think the key to the game of baseball with the way the bats are right now is small ball,” Kindle said. “These guys work extremely hard to not make mistakes up at the plate, to have good, quality at bats. That’s where our focus is right now. We do have some speed on the bases, we’ll be aggressive on the bases. We’re more built to play small ball and we’ll manufacture runs that way.”
“We’ve got our guys that spread the ball around the field,” McMullin said. “I’m not looking for anything huge, just get on base. Then we’ve got our big guys who are going to get us in.”
Those guys are returning veterans Cody Kozak and AJ Paul as well as a newcomer.
“Nick Hagedorn’s a little guy, but he can hit the baseball like a big guy,” McMullin said.
Bunting has become a key weapon in the Smith-Cotton offense and has been something the team has focused on in practice.
“We’ve got a couple guys that can place it and get on every time,” Kozak said. “Chance has got a lot of speed.”
On the mound, the Tigers are looking to replace Dalton Christian, now pitching for Coffeyville Community College where in five appearances this season he has an ERA of 2.70. Seniors Taylor Schubert, AJ Paul and Austin Bullerd look to anchor a staff which allowed an average of 7.7 runs per game last season but at times shut opposing bats down, allowing one run each in a pair of early season wins over Camdenton and Center and two runs in wins over New Franklin and Belton and in a district loss to Hickman.
“Those are probably our three strongest seniors but we’ve got some strong sophomores like (Chase) Plymell that can push for starting time,” Kindle said. “Right now it’s wide open. We’ve got two really good sophomores in Plymell and Robo (Roberto Ramirez) who will push for some time, but right now we can’t say we have an ace. We just have hopefully good, solid pitching.”
Backing those pitchers up is a solid defensive club. After some struggles with the gloves in 2012, the Tigers had a rough start in trying to improve their fielding last year when bad weather forced them to train indoors up until a couple of days before their first game. Good weather this year has given the team plenty of time to work on fielding and Kozak has seen improvement there.
“You can only work on so much indoors,” he said. “Outside you get to see where the ball’s flying. That helps a lot.”
Most of the positions and a lot of playing time are still up in the air for Kindle’s team. Kindle said he expects offensive production out of every spot in the lineup, whether that is scoring runs or driving them in.
“So far we’ve seen great effort out of our players and good, competitive baseball,” Kindle said. “We’ve got a lot of positions open. We also have a lot of talented young kids coming up so that pushes our seniors to be better.”
The key words around Tiger training camp this spring have been effort and attitude.
“Those are the only two things you can control,” Kozak said. “We’re working on a bunch of different scenarios and we’re out here scrimmaging and applying them.”
Smith-Cotton opens the 2014 season Tuesday when it travels to Camdenton. The Tigers then open the West Central Conference portion of the schedule March 28 at St. Pius X.