MOUNT CARMEL — The kind of season Wabash Valley College had last season simply is just a tough act to follow.
To have the level of success they had, 49 consecutive wins, remaining No. 1 in the NJCAA Division I Baseball Poll virtually from start to finish. Accompanied by their immense talent, whether it be NJCAA Division I Player of the Year Cael Baker, or Antoine Kelly Jr., a second-round selection in the 2019 MLB Draft, the Warriors were loaded top to bottom.
Now, Baker’s off to Ole Miss, Kelly’s signed with the Milwaukee Brewers, and a host of other talented players such as Noah Myers are off to other Division I ventures or signed professionally.
Wabash Valley College Rob Fournier knows it’s a tall task in replacing such production and simply put, as he explained, you can’t replace those caliber guys.
“Well, we really don’t,” Fournier said. “We’re totally different as far as the makeup with our overall team. [Noah] Myers will never be replaced, he’s what we call a six-tool player. Cael Baker, the year he had will never happen again.”
Even though they can’t be replicated, this year’s Warriors can certainly emerge from the shadow of last year’s historical success with their own identity. They return a lush of talent, evident by their No. 8 NJCAA Division I Preseason Poll ranking.
Returners, transfers headline another lethal Warriors lineup — Liebert the motor?
Though this team may not lead the nation in virtually every offensive category like last year’s edition of the Warriors, their hitters are just as capable of manning a top tier lineup.
University of Kentucky signee Kirk Liebert headlines the returning bats. Liebert came on late for the Warriors as a utility, spark plug type hitter for WVC, slashing for a .424 clip and 22 RBIs in just 66 at bats.
As a contact-hitting lefty, Liebert adds another dimension into the order with his athleticism and patience at the plate. He’ll likely be a top three hitter and is ranked as the 77th best junior college prospect in the country by Perfect Game.
Fournier went as far to call Liebert the motor of this team.
“I think Kirk Liebert is our motor,” Fournier spoke of Liebert. “He’s the pulse of our team in that he does a little bit of everything for us. He brings energy, he hits, he steals bases.”
Other key returning bats include 6-foot-5 power hitting outfielder Mason Sykes (.377 BA, 10 HR, 51 RBIs), who’s committed to the University of Toledo. Middle infielders Freylin Minyety (.369 BA, 43 RBIs) and the speedy Savier Pinales (.363 BA, team-high 10 triples, 43 SB, 46 RBIs). Both pencil in as early-mid order guys, with Pinales’ speed and prowess for getting on base as a real x-factor for this team.
The additions of transfer hitters such as University of Kentucky commit Jake Plastiak, Miami transfer Hylan Hall, and University of Louisville commit Adisyn Coffey, each who ranked in the top 200 prospects in the country, will certainly help, as each look the part of key guys in the order.
Plastiak in particular could be set for a Baker-esque breakout year. A transfer from Wichita State, Plastiak was a 28th round selection out of high school and was ranked as the second best professional prospect in this summer’s Coastal Plains League. He’ll assume third base responsibilities this season and brings a switch hitting, power bat to the order.
Tullar, Weins headline Warrior arms
On one side Wabash Valley lost key rotation arms in Kelly and Alabama’s Ryan O’Connell, on the other, they return Mississippi State commit Cameron Tullar, who had an unbelievable debut on the mound and arguably the nation’s best closer in South Carolina commit CJ Weins.
Tullar went 9-1 in his freshman campaign, having surrendered just a 2.02 ERA and fanning 104 batters in 66 2-3 innings pitched. Tullar, a southpaw, sits in the 88-91 mph range for his fastball, with complementary pitches such as his slider, curveball and change up.
He ranks as the 35th best JUCO prospect in the country by Perfect Game, but with a stellar encore season, could certainly soar even higher up such rankings.
Weins was 5-0 on the season with seven saves as the Warriors’ go to guy late in games. His ERA sat at a lowly 1.32 mark (five runs allowed all season), with 54 strikeouts in 27 1-3 innings of work.
Perfect Game tabs Weins as the No. 8 JUCO prospect in the country, with his fastball clocking out in the 92-95 mph range. He’s worked on adding a change up to his arsenal, complementing his slider as a potential put away pitch.
This year Weins will be filling a different role however, they’re sliding their once dominant closer over to the rotation, where he’ll see an uptick in innings.
Fournier said he’s a little apprehensive about the move, just due to it being a different role for Weins, but did add he’s excited to see it pan out.
“That’s a bit new for us and him. He’s embraced it and is really happy about it, so that’ll be fun to watch,” Fournier spoke of Weins’ shift. “He’s stepped up his game as well, he’s not just a two pitch guy like he was last year, he’s developed a really nasty change up that we’re really happy about. He’s our quiet assassin, he’s our quiet leader, nobody works harder than him,”
“When you’ve got a guy like CJ Weins at the back side it’s awesome, because you’re like, I got a lead, I can sit down over there and have a cup of coffee. This year it’s something we feel good about, but we don’t know, because you don’t know what you don’t know. Yeah, that’s one part where I’m a bit apprehensive, but we’re going to see it unfold.”
Likely the third addition to the rotation, Purdue transfer Austin Peterson, whom Fournier likened to fill final spot in the pitching rotation. At 6-foot-7 Peterson’s a towering righty with an 88-90 mph fastball. He boasts a pair of quality off speed pitches in his slider and change up.
Jared Hart (Illinois State), Michael Payne, Connor Fenlong (Indiana State), Landon Weins and even Coffey are just some arms set to come out of the bullpen for the Warriors.
Deeper than 2019 and ready to tee off
Though it may be hard to conceive, Fournier believes this crop of Warriors are actually deeper than his storied 2019 bunch. Due to that fact, Fournier said entering the first game of the season, he’s still not sure who all will reside in the lineup.
That’s to be expected this early in the season, and honestly a good problem to have. Fournier said these first few weeks down south are all about self discovery.
“Find out our rotation, figure out who’s going to plug the holes and find everything out about us,” Fournier spoke of the season-opening road trip. “Get better, know each other on the road, I think it’s a great opportunity for our guys to get closer against a top notch schedule we’re playing down there,”
“Central Alabama is a really good club that has a national championship in the past — I think it was five or six years ago. Jackson State down in Tennessee is a real quality club from Tennessee, then we’re going to go down to Chipola and face arguably the best program in the country year in and year out. It’s going to be an awesome test for us. We embrace the competition, that’s how you find out about your club. We just like being in good moments like that.”
And for all the acclaim the 2019 group (rightfully) received, they did ultimately fall short of their goal. They lost in the Northern District Tournament finale to preseason No. 2 Iowa Western with a trip to Grand Junction on the line.
This group could be the one to break through, to topple the Reivers, who have been a thorn in WVC’s side.
“I think that ultimately we keep in perspective that our goal wasn’t finished,” Fournier explained. “Our goal was to win the national championship, get out to Grand Junction. I think that’s something some of the sophomores are looking at, I think they’re really hungry to do that again. At the end of the day we had a wonderful season but fell short of our ultimate goal. We’re excited. I think it’s a really good bunch of sophomores and a lot of fun right now.”
But the time for postseason aspirations will come down the road. For now, they’re just ready to tee off some baseball. Fortunately they’ll begin with a lengthy road trip down to Alabama and Florida, with likely more forgiving baseball weather to help warm their bats and swell their confidence entering the spring.
“We’re just excited with this bunch. Right now we’re nowhere close to where we’ll be — as to be expected — but I think that we’ve just got to get out and play games. We’ve got to realize we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to drop a few games here and there I’m sure, make a lot of mistakes. We’ve got to keep things in perspective is the ultimate key. Not put any pressure on ourselves to do what we did last year, this and that. We’ve just got to worry about our guys, our identity and just focus on getting better.”
They’ll debut this Saturday in a doubleheader at Central Alabama with a noon first pitch time, with their first home game slated for Saturday, Feb. 29 against St. Charles Community College in a doubleheader.