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More talent, higher expectations for baseball team

Submitted by Tony Lenahan on February 10, 2011 – 11:45 pmNo Comment

The UALR baseball team had its best winning percentage (.537) since 2000, finishing 29-25 last season. Third-year coach Scott Norwood expects great things from this year’s group as well as for the future of the program.

Dillon Wilson

Junior Dillon Wilson lands after throwing a pitch in the Trojans' practice facility. Photo by Tony Lenahan.

“The talent here was down,” Norwood said about the team before he entered the picture at the beginning of the 2008-09 year. “It was just my job to get better players and that’s why I was brought in here. My expectations are, we’re going to get in the postseason. I came here to get us to the postseason. We’re going to get there. It’s hard work. We’re on the right track.”

The Trojans ended last year as the 11th most improved program in the country. UALR had an 11-game improvement from the 2009 year when they went 16-34. The team also improved its RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) by almost 100 points, from 233 in 2009 to 136 last year. The RPI is used to rank teams based on their wins and losses and strength of schedule.

“We have three junior college All-Americans and two kids that were drafted that didn’t sign for the money in the Major League draft, that stayed,” Norwood said. “That really gave us an even better foundation. Now we’re starting to get high school kids from the local area in the state that want to stay or are at least looking at us. In the past, they ran as fast as they could (away from UALR).”

The two players drafted last year are junior left-handed pitcher Dillon Wilson, who figures into the starting rotation, and junior catcher Hector Acosta who can also play in the outfield.

“Dillon Wilson is a transfer,” Norwood said. “He was drafted by the Royals last year. He’s a weekend guy – a big, tall 6-foot-7-inch lefty, [who] throws low 90s consistently – someone we really count on. His team finished third in the Junior College World Series last year and he was one of their big guns throwing for them.”

Norwood said he expects right-handed seniors Daniel Golden, Travis Henke and Garrett Graziano to fill out the rotation.

“Daniel, he’s really grown up a lot,” Norwood said. “I think that he knows that we’re expecting a lot of great things from him. Last year, he had some rough outings here and there, but I think he’s learned to overcome some stuff.”

The Trojans did lose their best hitter in catcher Landis Wilson (.335 average), but Norwood is confident in his replacement.

Junior transfer Niko Navarro prepares to swing in UALR's practice facility before the 2011 season. Photo by Tony Lenahan.

“We did lose Landis, but I feel very strongly that Niko Navarro is our catcher that we brought in,” he said. “He’s a transfer from Florida International. He sat out last year. He’s been drafted already by the Pirates in the 23rd round.”

There is little turnover in the infield where seniors Jake Rowell (.308 Avg., 8 HR, 48 RBIs) Casey McCollum (.310, 1, 33), Brock Feldman (.293, 1, 35), and Jason Houston (.297, 14, 53) will patrol.

“Our infield is pretty intact,” Norwood said. “I expect a lot out of Jack Rowell and Casey McCollum. Those are probably two of the better hitters we have returning, along with Brock Feldmann. Jake probably has the power, the whole package swinging it pretty well. Jason Houston, he’s another one.”

Redshirt junior Cody Gilles figures to see some time as the designated hitter and junior Justin Barnes looks to see some time at first base after the Trojans lost Tyson Parks.

“That was a kid who only played eight games and broke his hand,” Norwood said about Gilles. “That one really hurt us. He was a junior college All-American. He dove after a ball and broke his hand. Justin Barnes is another. He originally signed with Oklahoma State out of high school. He was the 2008 Oklahoma high school player of the year.”

Along with Acosta, junior college All-American honorees Cameron Bentley and Sean Bignall look to man the outfield. Sophomore Tyler Cameron and junior Austin Atwell will also see some time out there. Freshman Andrew Hohn looks to see some playing time in the field and on the mound.

“That’s one of the reasons why we recruited Andrew,” Norwood said. “He’s really going to develop into a better player than he is now. The sky’s the limit for him. He’s a three-time all-state performer in [Arkansas] and we’re lucky to get him.”

“I go down the line,” Norwood continued. “Our depth of talent is so much better. Our speed is so much better. Our want to be here is so much better. The class of the kid, no disrespect to anybody in the past, but they just played the game to play. They didn’t want to excel in everything you do. If you want to be a great student-athlete, you have to do it all well. We’re on the right path to do that. The chemistry is phenomenal on this team.”

The Trojans have a serious obstacle this year with the Sun Belt  being ranked the seventh-best conference in the nation last season, RPI-wise. UALR also has a top-80 schedule that includes playing Oklahoma four times this year including once at Dickey-Stephens Park on May 4. The SBC sent three teams – Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida International and Florida Atlantic -  to the postseason last year. They all received votes in the final polls last year.

“It’s probably one of the best upper mid-major leagues there is in the country,” Norwood said. “I always tell people the strength of your conference doesn’t come from the top. The strength comes from the bottom. We’ve started at the very bottom and now started moving our way up.”

Norwood is ready for the season and he wants the students to come out and support the team this year. The Trojans play at Gary Hogan Field which was renovated in 2005. There was also a party deck built last year to accommodate fans.

“We’re going to make it,” Norwood said of reaching the playoffs. “People might not believe it, but it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when. We got to go out and play. That’s all we can do. We’ve got to prove it. It’s a great place. We’ve got a great administration, we’ve got good help. I’ve got a great staff. Better athletes make the coach look better. I want to win here. I think this city is hungry for it.”

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