Clark baseball team hopes small ball leads to big improvement

By Micah Rice, Columbian sports editor

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photoClark College baseball player Spencer Ramsay fields a grounder in the outfield during practice, Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (Steven Lane/The Columbian)

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photoSophomore pitcher Kevin Hamman says he learned a lot from his freshman season.

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The hollering might be just as hearty, the clapping just as crisp.

But it won't likely be a home run that ignites the Clark College baseball team's dugout this spring.

A precise bunt or a well-timed hit-and-run is what gives these Penguins their pop.

"Last year we had some guys who we thought had pop, and we had four home runs all year," Clark coach Don Freeman said. "If we sit back and wait for the home run ball, we're in trouble."

Clark was the epitome of a .500 team last year. It finished 21-21 overall, 12-12 in league and scored as many runs (179) as it allowed.

Clark now has its sights on the NWAACC playoffs thanks to a sophomore-laden lineup at the two-year school.

The team is a year older and more comfortable with its identity. It knows its fortunes will depend on pitching, speed and timely hitting.

"We definitely have our sights set higher than last year," said Kyle Vanderkin, part of an infield that returns all four starters. "If we do the little things, the big things will take care of themselves."

The early season has shown Clark can put its words into action. The Penguins won three of four games last weekend in Yakima, improving to 4-2. Five regular starters are hitting over .300, where last year's team had just one.

Experience makes all the difference according to Freeman, who coached 20 years at Prairie High School. He came to Clark in 2010 to revive the baseball program, which was hadn't played since 1992.

"Every level you move up, you have to focus even deeper because the competition is stronger," Freeman said. "That can be hard for young players coming in because half the people they were playing against in high school weren't athletes. They have that misconception that everything they do is good. All of the sudden, they get challenged a bit."

There's also the adjustment to using wooden bats, which have a smaller sweet spot than the metal bats used in high school.

Six of 10 pitchers on Clark's roster are freshman. But that doesn't mean expectations have lessened from last year, when three starters had earned-run averages of less than 3.00.

Sophomore Kevin Hamann believes he learned enough last year to be Clark's ace.

"Coming out of high school, you want to be the guy," Hamann said. "I put too much pressure on myself. Now I'm trying to be a good example to the younger guys."

Clark also has a promising freshman in Union graduate Colton Krueger, who pitched a complete game in a 6-3 win March 9 over Yakima Valley.

Krueger is among athletes from local high schools are key for Clark. Skyview graduates Spencer Ramsey and Brayden Maney are hitting .421 and .417, respectively, making them the team's top two hitters with more than 10 at bats. Starting outfielder Jake Ripley (Prairie) is hitting .300.

Clark opens its home schedule Sunday against Centralia at Kindsfather Field, which is on the west edge of the main campus.

The Penguins open league play March 28 in their first season in the six-team NWAACC South Division, where Clark will be the only team not in Oregon.

Clark was previously in a seven-team West Division, but moved to the South after Linn-Benton dropped its baseball program.