Will Spires have ‘last’ word?
For what used to be a baseball program that had a lot of on-field credibility, the past couple of years for the University of Saint Mary has been anything but the standard they expect.
A year ago, they started the season 0-12 and ended up limping home with a 12-34 overall record and a 10-17 mark in Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) play.
The previous campaign saw the Spires round out into a 15-40, 10-26 squad and suddenly the good tidings of a 27-22, 16-12 campaign in the spring of 2015 had been long pushed to the backburner.
Now, longtime head coach Rob Miller sees his team to finish last in the KCAC as the preseason polls have predicted.
So beginning Saturday at Panhandle State, a former NCAA Division II squad that is returning to the NAIA ranks, the Spires will boot up their hopeful path toward redemption beginning with a noon first pitch for the doubleheader.
“Hopefully we won’t get off to such a slow start, spread some games out a little bit more and see where we can go,” Miller said. “We’ve been preseason rated everywhere from one to eight, but we’ve never been picked last. I don’t put a lot of stock into it. They look at our roster and we have a lot of unknowns. I will say this: We are much more talented than last year and deeper in the infield and our pitching staff. We’re OK. I’ve got some guys who are pretty good pitchers and if they execute the plan, we have a great defense behind them. You minimize what you don’t have with strikeouts and power pitching with quality pitching, force contact and defense is going to play well behind them.
“We’re going to score some runs, so I feel good about this team. We have a few guys who can swing it a little bit. We’re still going to hit gap to gap and move people around. I think we have guys in the middle of the order who are contact types.”
The past two years have been loaded with a combination of newer players being overwhelmed with the task of playing NAIA and KCAC baseball while others may have thought they were already too good for the challenge and learned otherwise.
“We just flat failed. Kids failed, coaches failed and we got off to a horrible start (in 2017) and we just couldn’t get out of that rut,” Miller said. “We couldn’t do anything to get out of that rut until conference play started. We got our pitching staff figured out and gave the bulk of the innings to three left-handers and started winning some ball games.
“We got a lot of (junior college) kids last year that I don’t think they quite understood how good NAIA baseball is and then on top of that, we play in the best conference in America. There is no doubt about it. They didn’t understand how good the level of competition is and I think it caught them by surprise.”
Miller’s recruiting efforts in the offseason began to focus on the mental aspects of the game and getting players who are used to the grind and the toughness it takes to play approximately 50 games that mostly are a dogfight.
“We had a good group of kids last year, but they just didn’t click with how things operate,” Miller said. “This group, we intentionally recruited players who we feel will buy in and trust that our system works. If you look at the past, our system hasn’t changed except for a few things and we were very successful.
“The problem is, the other schools have caught up to us and there is a lot of good baseball out there.”
There was a coaching change at Sterling, but the perennial powers are expected to still be a KCAC title threat. Tabor is also going to be a challenger while Oklahoma Wesleyan is “loaded with talent,” according to Miller.
“York will be good and you can go down the list,” Miller said. “I tell people that back in the day, all you had to do was prepare and coach your team, recruit two or three really decent pitchers and you could show up at some of these sites and win games. They weren’t well-coached or prepared and you could come up with a plan and beat them. That doesn’t happen anymore. Our conference has such good coaches. Now, the coaching is so much better. They are prepared, they have a plan, they have everything.
“You have to be on the ball or you will struggle to win.”
Miller will also be coaching his son, senior Sam Miller, for the last time, as one of only two remaining members of the recruiting class of 2014.
“It’s fun and it’s been a fun ride coaching him,” coach Miller said. “It’s had its challenges as well and it’s been tough on him because I am the coach and everyone goes to him to find out information. I have enjoyed every minute of it and I believe he has as well, but he also wants to win games. His first year, he won games and that’s when we had talent. I think we have that again.”
Sam Miller is hoping for a pleasant swan song in 2018.
“Being here for four years, I know a lot of kids from other teams and I remember how to play (in the NAIA),” he said. “Everybody was out there fighting for a spot instead of fighting to compete to win. Everybody is new, everybody is trying to feel each other out. They were fighting for spots instead of wins.
“(The last-place prediction) kind of just makes you laugh, because we have been one of the more consistent programs, but the last two years we have been struggling, so this will give us some juice. Some of the guys who were on the team want to prove we are a lot better than last year. The new guys are owning it and buying into it more than last year. We also have depth now. If you make a mistake there is someone there behind you ready to pick you up. That’s where a lot of competitiveness comes in.”
Now it’s time to see if the Spires are heading back to an area of promise with this weekend’s three-game set at Panhandle State.
“I have no clue what they are like, I know they struggled last year,” coach Miller said. “We will just go down there, play our game and see what happens.”