Kansas Wesleyan enjoyed one of the best seasons in program history last spring compiling a 32-18 record and finishing third in the Kansas Conference with a 23-10 mark.
The season featured a stretch of nine consecutive victories that were part of a 13-1 run.
As the 2022 season begins, though, the Coyotes are eager to atone for the late-shortcomings that kept them from advancing to NAIA postseason play. A 7-5 record down the stretch that was punctuated by two season-ending losses in the conference tournament – the second a 25-2 setback to top-seeded Oklahoma Wesleyan – made for a long offseason.
“I think our guys were actually a little disappointed last year,” said coach Bill Neale, who enters his eighth season. “We lost some games down the stretch … and how we exited the tournament cost us an at-large bid.
“I think if we play a little better, we might get that at-large bid over McPherson and you never know after that. You look at what the KCAC teams did in the playoffs, it was pretty good.”
As a result, motivation has not been an issue for the returning players.
“Our guys came back with a different focus this fall,” Neale said. “For all the work and everything that we did and put into it it’s funny how a good year can almost feel like a disappointment because of two weeks. Our guys remember that and talked about it.”
With roughly a dozen returning players and several promising newcomers Neale’s eager to see what 2022 has in store. The season begins Tuesday with a game against Benedictine-Mesa in Mesa, Ariz. The Coyotes will play four more games against Taylor, Arizona Christian, College of Idaho and San Diego Christian on Wednesday through Saturday in Waddell, Ariz.
KWU’s home opener will be a doubleheader against William Penn starting at noon, February 12 at Dean Evans Stadium.
“We’ve had a really good fall and things have gone really well; I think they’re coming together,” Neale said. “We’re as well prepared as we can be going into any season.
“One of my problems since being here has been getting off to a good start so we’ve done some things a little bit differently and hopefully we can get off to that good start.”
It begins, of course, with pitching and KWU appears to have the nucleus for a solid staff. Seven who saw significant duty last spring return led by starters Tyler Triano (JR/Hollister, Calif.) (6-2, 2.75), Oscar Sanchez (JR/Celina, Texas) (6-2, 3.19 ERA), Trent Dewyer (JR/Albuquerque, N.M.) (4-6, 4.05), Jansen Lublin (JR/San Diego, Calif.) (4-0, 5.46) and Dylan Epke (SO/Wichita, Kan.) (3-2, 5.11). Branden Voytko (JR/El Paso, Texas) (1-0, 6.05, 9 saves) and Ethan Wilson (SR/Thackerville, Okla.) (1-1, 7.18) lead the bullpen. Three transfers have joined the relief corps – Alex Duarte (SO/Imperial, Calif.), KT Gearlds (JR/Ingram, Texas) and Cayden Diccion (JR/Piedmont, Calif.).
Triano will be on the mound for the start of Tuesday’s opener, Neale said.
“We feel like we’re 12, 13 deep with really good arms,” he said. “We found out last year that can help you be successful.”
Sandoval will handle the catching chores (.317 batting average, 12 home runs, 48 RBI in 2021). Triano (.333-7-26) played third base but will move to first and split time with Brown (.347-7-44), who will also be used at designated hitter. Dustin Sipe (JR/Aztec, N.M.), a transfer, will start at second and be joined by Dryburgh (.289-3-27). Bishop (.290-9-33) is back at shortstop and along with transfer Kevin Cruz (JR/Trujilo Alto, Puerto Rico). Transfer Jarrett Gable (JR/Colleyville, Texas) and returner Reece Bishop (SO/Colorado Springs, Colo.) are slated for third.
Sipe, who will also play DH, has been impressive early on.
“He’s probably our best hitter,” Neale said.
A pair of transfers, Yealex Lopez-Torres (JR/Arecibo, Puerto Rico) and Justin Lewis (JR/Redmond, Wash.), are the left fielders while Cruz and Jalen Jones (SO/Katy, Texas) will be in center field; Jones leading the developmental squad in hitting a year ago. Returner Diego Fisher (JR/Hollister, Calif.) and Zach Olson (SO/Red, Alberta), a power-hitting transfer from Cowley College, will patrol right field.
“It’s going to be tough making that first lineup,” Neale said. “It’s a good problem as a coach to have having that depth. Not looking at it and saying ‘who will we play now?’ If someone’s not doing well or there are some injuries there’s going to be that next man up and it’s going to be a very good proven player.”
Neale expects the KCAC to be a meatgrinder once again with Oklahoma Wesleyan, Tabor and Ottawa among the top teams.
“It’s even better,” he said. “I tell everyone it’s a reward to make the playoffs here.”