Saluki baseball older, wiser, winning

By Thomas Donley, @TDonleyDE

SIU baseball coach Ken Henderson knew during the 2015 season that sending out a lineup comprised mostly of freshmen and sophomores would pay off, even if the 12-46 record was hard for fans to stomach.

Those same players, who won roughly 20 percent of their games last year, have posted a 20-13-1 record so far this year.

“I told everybody last year that we weren’t a bad ball club,” Henderson said. “We had good players, but good players that weren’t ready yet.”

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The Salukis had nine players appear in at least 40 games in 2015. Seven of them were freshmen and sophomores. Six of those seven are back with the team. Five of the six returning position players have seen their batting averages increase by at least .033.

Only one Saluki hitter – senior outfielder Parker Osborne – had a slugging percentage better than .370 in 2015. The 2016 Salukis are slugging .371 as a team and have nine players with slugging percentages at least that high.

Henderson said last season allowed the young pups to adjust to the college baseball life, both on and off the field.

He said the biggest improvement for a collegiate baseball player comes between the freshman and sophomore years.

“It’s light-years,” said the sixth-year head coach. “They’ve matured in so many ways. But I think we expected that. I think some of it’s natural. It’s just that time. They’ve spent a year working on one sport for the first time. I think that really shows up when they come back in the fall.”

Henderson credited his players’ improvements to the experience they received last year against Division I opponents and the grind of the four-month season. Physical improvements were attributed to working with strength coach Dash Buntjer to get bigger and stronger.

Junior right fielder Jake Hand, the Salukis’ regular No. 3 hitter, said the culture change for the team began in the fall.

“It’s a much more confident, mature type of feel in the locker room than I’ve experienced since I’ve been here,” he said. “We built up in the fall the way we wanted to come out in spring. We started building that from Day One in the fall, and after time going through the fall with our workouts, we built a culture that we needed to be able to give ourselves a better chance to compete in the conference.”

Four key members of the 2016 pitching staff — junior reliever Jacob Williams, sophomore closer Ryan Netemeyer, sophomore starter Michael Baird and junior starter Chad Whitmer — pitched in at least 15 games last season as underclassmen. Those four have shaved an average of 4.58 off their ERAs from last year.

Sophomore first baseman Logan Blackfan, who leads the team with three home runs and 28 RBIs, said winning — and losing — has been contagious for the Dawgs.

“Last year, once we started realizing that we were having a bad year, it was hard to keep a positive mindset,” he said. “You want to be like, ‘Yeah, we can turn this around,’ but it was always kind of negative for us. We couldn’t catch any breaks. This year’s been a lot more fun. Everything came together for us for the most part, and we’re playing a lot better than we did last year. Everybody believes in everybody.”

While SIU has improved leaps and bounds, it still has more progress to make to join the top tier of Missouri Valley Conference baseball. The Salukis started the conference season by dropping two of three games to Indiana State (21-12, 2-1 Missouri Valley Conference). They will get their second taste of conference play this weekend with three games at Dallas Baptist (21-10, 2-0).

“We’re still a young club, but we’re a lot farther along than if we hadn’t stuck them out there as freshmen last year,” Henderson said. “We’ve beaten teams that are a lot more experienced than us because they played last year …  chose to stick them out there, so I think the expectation was a lot better this year. We certainly can get a lot better. We’re going to get a lot better.”

Thomas Donley can be reached at [email protected] or at 618-536-3307.

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