2023 Baseball Season Preview – Coyotes look to build on last year’s successes

Kansas Wesleyan’s baseball program finally reached the NAIA’s Promised Land at the end of the 2022 season.


The Coyotes caught fire late in the regular season, winning their last four games then stunned the Kansas Conference by winning the conference tournament in the most improbable fashion. After losing to Tabor in the opening round KWU won five games in three days, including two against Tabor in the championship on the third day.


Wesleyan’s magical run continued in the NAIA National Championship Opening Round with a victory over LSU-Alexandria in the first game. The Coyotes were eliminated with two losses, the first a 7-5 setback against No. 3-ranked Oklahoma City – a game they led 5-4 in the seventh inning.


“Obviously doing that has been the goal every year and we’ve been close,” said coach Bill Neale, who entering his eighth season. “It was awesome to win the conference tournament and make it to the national tournament. It just kind of proved to everyone where we are as a team and they got to see it firsthand.”


The Coyotes finished the season 35-29 including a 17-16 record in the KCAC.


“We got one of (the KCAC’s two) automatic bids by getting hot,” Neale said. “It was awesome to win a game at the national tournament and then play a heck of a game against the number three team in the country and just come up short against them.”


Neale expects more of the same this season with a veteran team returning and the addition of several promising newcomers. Expectations will be high with six position players returning along with much of the bullpen. The Coyotes set single-season school records for strikeouts (579) and home runs (96) in 2022.


“We’re embracing that, we’re not hiding from it,” Neale said. “We know where we should be and it’s going to take winning baseball games and being better than the team across from us each day.


“We’re getting better players in here and we’ve got depth at several positions. We have a pitching staff now where a my first few years it was just five or six pitchers. Last year we had 10 or 11 pitchers that contributed. If we have a position player not playing well, we have someone behind them that is just as good and can do the job.”


Pitching is the key, of course. The Coyotes lost three starters from last year’s team – Trent Dewyer, Oscar Sanchez and Branden Voytko (SR/El Paso, Texas), who will miss the season with an injury. Dewyer and Voytko each had at least 100 strikeouts.


Neale, though, believes he has filled the gaps. KWU opens the 2023 season against MidAmerica Nazarene on Thursday in Glendale, Arizona. They’ll play five games in four days during the trip.


“We have Spencer Foley (SR/Lancaster, Calif.) back (3-1, 1.65 ERA) and he had a great year for us,” Neale said. “We’re going to have a lot of new faces too. Nathan Righi (JR/Pekin, Ill.) (Parkland College transfer) will open up on Thursday and will be followed by Zach Westbrook (JR/Azle, Texas) (transfer from Frank Phillips) and Luis Villanueva (JR/Willis, Texas) (Brescia transfer) will come in behind him. And there’s Jarrett Brannen (JR/Bakersfield, Calif.) (transfer from Bakersfield) as well.”


The bullpen is well stocked with closers KT Gearlds (SR/Ingram, Texas) (6-2, 6.47) and Ryan Sandoval (SR/El Paso, Texas) (5-5, 6.68, 5 saves). Caden Diccion (0-0, 5.40) and Cesar Rodriguez (JR/Houston, Texas) (1-0, 6.50) also return.


“We’ve added some more depth,” Neale said. “Even with some of the guys that are hurt right now we’re still 14, 15, 16 pitchers deep so we’re excited about that.”


The entire infield returns led by All-KCAC First Team selection Dustin Sipe (SR/Aztec, N.M.) (15 home runs, 71 runs batted in, .322 batting average) at third base and Second Team choice Haydn Brown (SR/Gardnerville, Nev.) (17-63-.326) at first. Will Dryburgh (8-34-.405, 33 stolen bases) is back at second after earning All-KCAC Honorable Mention honors and Jarrett Gable (SR/Colleyville, Texas) (14-48-.258) returns at shortstop.


Kevin Esquillin-Cruz (5-38-.381) will be in centerfield once again while veterans Diego Fisher (SR/Hollister, Calif.) (3-21-2.59) and Zach Olson (JR/Red Deer, Alberta) (6-11-.254) will alternate in right field.


Kendall Foster (SR/Prosper, Texs), a transfer from Division I Northwestern State (La.), will start in left field and Diego Solis (SO/El Paso, Texas), a transfer from New Mexico Military Institute, will open at catcher. He’s joined by Jackson Newman (JR/Bixby, Okla.), a transfer from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M.


Zack Beatty (JR/Maple Park, Ill.), who hit 24 home runs for McCook Community College last spring, will be the designated hitter.


Four others also will see duty – shortstop Adrian Villalobos (SO/Kelseyville, Calif.) from Mendocino College (Calif.) and is currently injured, catcher Kansuke Okada (SR/Osaka, Japan) from Northwest Oklahoma State and freshmen Cole Riggs, an outfielder, and first baseman Cruz Oxford (FR/Peoria, Ariz.).


Neale says the Coyotes’ attack will be a combination of power and speed – they stole 83 bases in 2022.


“That’s the one thing that I’ve always prided myself on,” he said. “I want to hit the long ball; I want to be able to hit a three-run home run but I also want to run the bases as well. And I thought we proved that last year.


“I think we’ll hit 100 home runs and steal 100 bases this year. Kendall Foster brings that running aspect and he’s also got pop in his bat. I think with him, Will and Kevin there’s 75-80 stolen bases between them.”


Neale has three new assistant coaches. Longtime assistant Jonathan Freemyer was named Ottawa’s head coach during the offseason and Neale hired Bret Ringer, Sam Huffstickler and Ethan Wilson.


Ringer was head coach at Medocino College (Calif.) the last three years while Huffstickler was on the staff at Division II Central Missouri. Wilson was a member of the KWU pitching staff the last three seasons.


“Coach Ringer does a great job with our infielders and hitters,” Neale said. “He brings a calming aspect and I need that sometimes. He knows how to talk to our guys too. Coach Huff knows pitching and is an energy guy. He works really hard for the pitching staff. Ethan was the leader of our team last three years. It’s the perfect role for him to step into, be that guy kids can bounce ideas off of and will just listen.”


The Coyotes play theirs home opener in a doubleheader against Peru State at noon on February 4 at Dean Evans Stadium.