CARBONDALE — SIU baseball coach Ken Henderson is entering his eighth year as head coach and will surpass 200 career wins this year.
The Salukis went 27-30 last season and return one weekend starter, senior right-hander Michael Baird, their closer, Ryan Netemeyer, and second baseman Connor Kopach. Outfielders Addison Fugitt and Hunter Anderson and catcher Mitch Fairfield also started some games last season.
In this Q&A, Henderson discuss the 2018 season expectations, his exciting newcomers, expanding the running game and much more.
How has the summer gone?
Summer was very good. It's been normal—recruiting, trying to get the pieces in place for this year and the following years. We're coming off a year in which we fell short of our goals and expectations, so there was plenty of motivation and excitement to get the fall started. We're excited about the guys we have coming back, and I think we've put a great group of newcomers with them. It's a solid group of guys with a great deal of talent and we're exciting to get moving forward.
Four players were taken in the MLB Draft. How will that affect this year's team?
The draft was an interesting week for us. It's bittersweet. In the long run, we came out of it better than I thought. I'm always excited for our guys when they get a chance to play professional baseball. Everybody in our clubhouse has aspirations of doing that at some point. First of all, I'm really happy for Chad Whitmer and Joey Marciano. Those two seniors certainly deserved and earned that opportunity. We knew we had a chance to lose some juniors. We could have lost four, maybe five guys, but we only lost two. Those two were pretty special players. Greg Lambert and Nick Hutchins had really good careers for us.
We will miss Lambert's bat in the middle of the lineup and Nick's defense, controlling the pitching staff and the running game. The sweet side is that we held on to Michael Baird and Connor Kopach. We didn't know, going into the draft, how that would work out. Eventually, we were able to hold on to them and both had great summers. They worked extremely hard. We're about halfway through the fall, and both of them are having the best falls of their careers. In some ways, I think they put a lot of pressure on themselves last year. Now that they're back, the pressure is off. They have taken the mindset to relax and give it their best efforts, and I think that's paying off on the field.
The core of the team was essentially the same for three seasons. What's it like now with a new group of players?
Obviously, you don't recruit kids unless you like them, but I don't know that I've ever had a recruiting class that came in so much better than our expectations. They're far ahead of where they were when we saw them. Again, we liked them when we saw them, but they are much better than I even anticipated. We don't typically recruit a lot of junior college kids, but we felt we needed some immediate help.
We brought in six junior college guys, and I could not be more pleased with them. They will all be immediate impact guys, as you hope junior college guys will be. Physically, they're better than I thought; and in terms of make-up, they're off the charts. Nikola Vasic and Alex Lyon on the infield are perfect fits for us. They're blue collar guys. They're throw-backs in terms of how they approach the game and with their work ethic. Kenton Crawford is extremely talented. We were very fortunate to get Austin Ulick after we lost Nick Hutchins in the MLB Draft. He has three years left and is a really good catch-and-throw guy.
We had some question marks with starting pitcher, and Mason Hiser and Dylan Givens are both capable of being starters for us. As I said, I couldn't be more pleased with the junior college guys. We were really careful to recruit the right kids—people we felt would fit in. All six seem as if they've been here forever.
What have you seen from the incoming freshmen?
Recruiting is so crazy anymore. You start recruiting kids so early in their high school careers. You see them and like them, but it's amazing to see the strides they make by the time they get here. Grey Epps and J.T. Weber are guys that physically are far ahead of where we thought they would be coming in as freshmen. On the mound, Noah Farmer has looked as good as anyone.Trey McDaniel and Nolan Johnson are everything we thought they would be in terms of make-up—perfect fits for us and what we're trying to do with the program in terms of tough, hard-nosed kids who grind it out every day.
Bradley Hudson, Stephen Mogged and Michael Bieterman have all done what we expect them to do. I'm really pleased with all of those guys. Several of the freshmen will make an immediate impact.
What are the expectations for 2018?
For me, the expectation is always to win the league. We haven't talked a lot about that. We're going out every day and working our rear ends off to be the best we can be, to improve all phases of the game. The guys have done everything we have asked them to do. If we take care of things on a daily basis and play the game like we're capable of, the end result will take care of itself. The goal is to be at the top of the league.
It will be interesting because we have so many new guys. Fifteen new guys is basically half the club. Nobody really knows what to expect, and I think we're going to surprise a lot of people. The pieces are in place.
You put in a new running game last year and stole 100 bases. What will that look like going forward?
First and foremost, the credit goes to our assistant coaches. Coach (Ryan) Strain, who was here last year, and coach (Seth) LaRue implemented a different philosophy in our running game. We made it a priority and spent a great deal of time on it. It was a huge weapon for us last year, not only the stolen bases but also the pressure we put on other teams. We hope to be even better at that.
It was new for us last year, and we had a great deal of success. That was a club that was just OK in terms of speed; and like I said earlier, this club runs much better. If we can continue to do those things with more guys in the lineup—I think we can put six or seven guys in the lineup who can steal a base anytime they want—we can expand on it. It's not just stealing bases. It's turning singles into doubles and double into triples. Our park has big gaps, so we can get a lot of extra base hits. Those things put pressure on a defense.