The question gave Glenwood coach Bret Elam pause.
After three straight 20 win seasons and with his top four pitchers and top five hitters returning, is the Glenwood baseball team the favorite in the Hawkeye 10 Conference this season?
“If you base it on who has what coming back, yeah, we’re probably the favorite,” said Elam after a long, contemplative sigh. “Denison will be pretty good, Lewis Central will be pretty good and Harlan lost a lot of key pitching and position players but they always find a way to be scrappy so they can’t be ruled out.
“But just like any year we have to beat the people we’re supposed to beat and hope to split with some others and hope the other teams upset somebody and help you out.”
It’s hard for Elam not to figure his team has a shot at its first outright Hawkeye 10 title, not with his pitching rotation. The Rams return their top four pitchers in Taylor Kaufman, Drake Ruth, Bryan Harless and Matt Schulz. That quartet combined to go 18-6 while striking out 143 in 142 2/3 innings a year ago.
Kaufman led the Rams with a 5-0 record and five saves but pitched just 24 innings a season ago, mostly out of the bullpen, while struggling with tendinitis in his left pitching arm. Kaufman, a lefty who has gone 12-1 on the mound in the last two seasons, has a fast ball that reaches the upper 80s and a nasty change up.
Elam said Kaufman shut it down over the winter to rest up the arm for spring. The coach said a new rehabilitation program and some limited work in a wooden bat league this spring has the southpaw ready for the 2010 season.
“I think we’re going to figure him in as one of starters in our tentative rotation but we’re not going to over work him and we’re going to be real cautious on his pitch count early. Sure we want to win now but he has a career ahead of him,” he said.
Also returning on the mound is Ruth (6-3, 2.90 ERA), Harless (4-1, 2.15 ERA) and Schulz (3-2, 1.65 ERA).
“We’re very excited. (Assistant) Coach (Curt) Kaufman and I hope we show up to play how we’re capable of playing all year,” said Elam.
At the plate, the Rams return six of their top eight hitters off a team that averaged nearly eight runs a a game.
Kaufman’s injury didn’t seem to effect his stroke at the plate as he led the Rams with a .484 average and 41 runs batted in. Harless, who is the Rams’ catcher when not on the mound, hit .325 with 17 RBIs. Third baseman Nick Wells hit .346 and drove in 28 runs. Kyle Wheeler (.330) and Grant Loeffelbein (.325, 15 stolen bases) give the Rams good speed on the base paths.
“The last past few years we’ve been really deep in the infield,” said Elam. “This year is just the opposite. We have a glutton of outfielders who can hit and run. We’re probably five or six deep out there and we don’t lose a step.”
While winning the conference is the goal, Elam said his team has bigger goals in mind too. The Rams are 71-35 over the last three seasons but have just one district win to show for it.
“It’s one of our main goals,” said Elam of getting over the district hump. “Baseball is kind of weird because we don’t have to win our conference. We know before our first game we’re going to the first round of districts. I don’t want to say by any means we’re looking past the conference because winning that is certainly one of our goals.
“But above and beyond that we want to get past that first round of districts and districts all together and see what happens.”
A handful of projected varsity starters are playing other spring sports so Elam has yet to have a practice with a full roster with the season-opener just six days away at Tri-Center.
“We’ve had a few practice conflicts but we just have to do what we have to do to get through it,” said Elam. “We’ll be ready.”