Experienced Jacks aim for a healthy 2019 in hopes to dethrone Oral Roberts

Carson Herbert, Sports Reporter

Entering the 2019 season, the South Dakota State baseball team finds itself in familiar territory.

The Jacks, who have been ranked second in the Summit League baseball preseason poll for the past two seasons, were tabbed by the conference’s coaches as the second-best team in the league on Feb. 7.

Oral Roberts, who has dominated the league for the past two decades. 19 of the last 21 Summit League Tournament Championships, including the last four, have been won by the Golden Eagles.

The Jackrabbits will look to dethrone the Oral Robert Golden Eagle from the top spot in the Summit League.

Jackrabbit head coach Rob Bishop thinks many factors are key for the team to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

“I think when you look at a team like that that’s separated themselves over the course of time like they have, first of all, you have to respect it because (Oral Roberts) has been really good,” Bishop said. “I think, from my perspective, it takes a few things but the first thing is staying healthy. Keeping your best players out on the field and the second thing is just being able to segment the season into 10 series. You just have to go out and win each series.”

The team’s health was a problem last season as several key players spent time off the field with injuries. So far while practicing in the Sanford-Jackrabbit Athletic Complex, the team appears to be healthy approaching the start of the 2019 season.

The defending Summit League Tournament runner-up returns their ace in junior right-hander Brady Stover to lead an experienced rotation featuring junior right-handed pitchers Tyler Olmstead and Brady Moxham; senior Korey Kuhlmann and fifth-year senior Ryan Froom, who will make his return after sitting out the 2018 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Bishop said he plans on sticking with a three-man starting rotation throughout the season.

“We intentionally scheduled a four-game series early knowing that when we play three in conference play, one of those guys who has been starting will move to the bullpen,” Bishop said. “We feel like we have five or six guys who will be competing for those three spots.”

In regards to the team’s experience, Bishop feels like it could give the Jacks an advantage.

“We have an interesting team because we have a veteran presence in a lot of positions,” he said. “… I feel great about our team and the experience plays at this level of college athletics, not just in baseball, experience matters with the travel and with the rigor of a good conference.

Graduating a senior class full of power, Tony Kjolsing, Anthony Schneider and Newt Johnson won’t be easy to replace in the lineup. The trio hit 22 of the team’s 32 home runs and were the team leaders in runs batted in.

Sophomore infielder Gus Steiger and senior infielder/outfielder Nick Smith return as the Jacks’ best hitters from a season ago. The duo batted .311 and .303 respectively in 2018.

“Those are three big bats to lose,” Bishop said on losing last year’s seniors. “I don’t think you replace those guys individually. I think you replace them kind of in the aggregate.”

Despite the losses, Bishop has confidence in the lineup going into the season.

“I think it has plenty of length,” he said. “I think we have really good hitters hitting 6-7-8-9. I don’t think we have any one guy who is going to carry us. It’s going to be about depth and passing it on to the next guy and keeping the inning alive.”

Smith and Stover were named players to watch by the Summit League.

The Jacks will open up their season with a four-game series against the University of Tennessee Martin in Russellville, Arkansas. on Feb. 15. The Skyhawks finished 11-40 (7-22) last season and placed 10th out of 11 teams in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Senior outfielder Jordan Stoner returns as the top hitter for UT Martin. Stoner finished 2018 with a team-high .382 batting average and a .465 on base percentage in 51 games played.

“For us, having not been outside yet, it’s just important that we hit the ground in compete mode,” Bishop said. “We’re going to be uncomfortable with certain things and we can’t let that get in the way…I expect that we will make some mistakes like every team does early in the season. For me, it’s about bouncing back and how quickly we can recover from those.”