Coyotes ready for NAIA Opening Round Challenge

SHREVEPORT, Louisiana – Bill Neale wants his Kansas Wesleyan baseball team to do one thing well above all else as the Coyotes begin play in the NAIA Opening Round.

“Just be us, don’t make the situation bigger than what it is,” said Neale as KWU prepares for its opening game against No. 18-ranked Concordia (Nebraska) at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at Pilot Field on the Louisiana State-Shreveport campus. “Just continue to play games the way that we played games this year with that loose mentality and not putting too much emphasis on it. Don’t worry about the other team across the field. I think the only team that can beat us is us.”

The Coyotes (45-10) are ranked 20th in the NAIA and are the third seed in the bracket. Concordia (41-13) is the second seed and LSU-Shreveport (42-2) the top seed and ranked fourth in the NAIA. Talladega (38-15) is the bracket’s fourth seed and plays fifth-seeded Blue Mountain Christian (31-21) in Tuesday’s first game at 11 a.m.

KWU won the Kansas Conference title for the second consecutive season and was second in the KCAC Tournament, losing to Oklahoma Wesleyan 6-4 Sunday in Great Bend.

Neale hopes a week off will benefit his squad.

“We struggled a bit offensively at the at the conference tournament but I think we’re pitching it at a high level,” he said. “We’ve got a few guys a little banged up so if they get healthy by Monday I like our chances.”

Hitting has been the Coyotes’ forte this season with a .328 team batting average and they’re scoring just under 10 runs a game. They have bashed 124 home runs.

Jarrett Gable leads the way with a .401 average and has a team-best 74 runs batted in. Seven other Coyotes are batting at least .302 including Jacob WilliamsonReece BishopCruz OxfordKendall Foster, and Tyler Favretto. All five have also driven more than 50 runs apiece. Foster has a team-best 22 home runs followed by Gable with 18 and Williamson 16.

The pitching staff has a 4.30 team earned run average and opposing batters are hitting just .244. Jarrett Brannen, who will likely start Tuesday’s game, is 11-1 with a 3.31 ERA. Brett Maddock is 8-2 with a 5.76 ERA and Thalen Wright 7-3 and 5.22. In the bullpen Ritter Steinmann is 2-1 with a 1.91 ERA in 26 appearances and closer Ryan Sandoval has a team-high eight saves and 3.94 ERA.

Neale is confident his team is equipped to handle the emotional stress of playing in the national tournament. KWU is playing in its third consecutive Opening Round.

“One good thing is we brought in a lot of kids from winning programs,” he said. “So, whether it’s the NAIA Opening Round or playing for the juco national championship out in California … a lot of our guys have played in these pressure situations. And obviously we have guys who have been here in the Opening Round and can give our guys some advice.”

Concordia shared the Great Plains Athletic Conference title with Doane then defeated Doane 5-1 in the conference tournament championship Tuesday.

The Bulldogs have a .326 team batting average, score just under nine runs a game, have hit 109 home runs, and have a 4.40 team ERA. They swept a doubleheader from KWU 14-5 and 5-2 on February 20 at Dean Evans Stadium.

“They’re good, they’re all junior college transfers so they’re always older,” Neale said. “They’ve got the all-time NAIA home run leader in Joey Grabanski (24 homers this spring), their third baseman (Jaidan Quinn) is good (26 homers) and they’ve got some good arms. They like to run which probably isn’t the best for us.”

The winner will play the Talladega-Blue Mountain Christian winner at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday while the loser will play the Talladega-BMC loser in an elimination game at 11 a.m. Wednesday. Play concludes Thursday; a second championship game is slated for Friday if necessary.

The Shreveport bracket winner advances to the AVISTA NAIA World Series on May 24-31 at Lewiston, Idaho.

“It should be a lot of fun,” Neale said. “We’re excited for the challenge.”