Central Arkansas Christian’s baseball team returns just two starters from last year’s team that reached the semifinals of the Class 4A State Tournament.
And although those two — Jack Thomas and Jack Partlow — are good ones, it will be something of a rebuilding year on Mustang Mountain. Fourth-year coach Ryan Stauder hopes his young team can peak at the right time.
"We will be lacking in experience," said Stauder, who led CAC to a 15-13 mark last season that also included 7-4A conference and district tournament championships and a South Regional runner-up finish. "However, we bring in some talented freshmen to go along with a good core group returning.
"This group is very hard-working, and we will be playing our best baseball by the end of the season. We will be a hard-nosed team of competitors that do the little things, and that will help us to compete in the toughest (Class) 4A conference in the state."
The first week of the season was marred by the latest round of ice two weeks ago, and three games were cancelled. Since then, the Mustangs lost to Pulaski Academy, 6-3, and to Little Rock Catholic, 8-0, forfeited a game with Heber Springs on Thursday that conflicted with the girls basketball state title game and beat Conway St. Joseph and De Queen in a Saturday tournament at Bauxite.
Against St. Joe, the Mustangs prevailed 8-0 in a five-inning run rule game. Thomas threw the complete-game shutout, giving up two hits (representing the Bulldogs’ only two base-runners) and struck out 14 of the 15 at-bats. He was also two-for-three at the plate with a double, an RBI, a stolen base and a run scored. Partlow was one-for-one with a walk, a run scored, an RBI and two stolen bases. Hunter Corbell was one-for-two with a walk and two runs scored.
In the 10-7 five-inning time limit win over De Queen, Paxton Templeton got the complete-game win, giving up two earned runs, seven hits and two walks while striking out one. Partlow went two-for-three at the plate with a double, three RBIs and two runs scored. Corbell was one-for-two with a double, two walks, two runs scored and one RBI. Austin Holley went one-for-two with an RBI and a walk. Cade Huckaby was one-for-two with an RBI, a walk and two runs scored.
The Mustangs were scheduled to play at Carlisle on Monday, but that has been moved to April 24. They were to play at Greenbrier on Tuesday and then will play host to Sylvan Hills on Thursday and Harding Academy on Friday before taking next week off for Spring Break.
Eleven seniors — including seven starters — graduated from last year’s squad, including all but one pitcher.
CAC is a traditional baseball power, having won six state championships. Stauder was an assistant on the last one in 2009. Since his return as head coach, he led the Mustangs to back-to-back Class 5A state tourney appearances in 2011 and ’12 prior to the move to Class 4A last year.
He said team strengths would be senior leadership, team chemistry and overall team speed. With just two starters back, inexperience will be the most obvious weakness, but pitching depth will be another.
Thomas, quarterback for the football Mustangs, has signed to play baseball for Harding University next year. He has been a staple in the CAC rotation since his sophomore season and will anchor the rotation this spring. He’ll play shortstop when not on the mound and is the best hitter for average. Stauder called him "the quarterback of the defense." Partlow, the returning lead-off hitter, is the best power hitter and led the team in stolen bases last year. He has signed to play football at Harding.
Stauder said the lack of experience would affect his team’s style of play.
"We will have to rely more on defense and small ball and make sure we keep the scores down," he said.