ENID, Okla. — New Northern Oklahoma College Enid head baseball coach Scott Mansfield just smiles when asked about the pressure of taking over a program coming off its first national championship and being ranked No. 1 in the NJCAA Division II baseball poll.
The Jets open the season with a weekend (1 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday) doubleheader against No. 11-ranked Northeast Nebraska, a 2019 World Series participant at David Allen Memorial Ballpark.
"I don't feel any pressure and I don't expect the team to feel any pressure,'' said Mansfield, a long-time assistant under former head coach Raydon Leaton, now NOC Enid's vice president. "The expectations have always been to compete for championships and we fully embrace that challenge.''
That challenge is heightened by the Jets returning only two players — third baseman Alec Buonasera (.381, five homers and 40 RBI) and shortstop Shane Nixon (.250, three homers, 25 RBI), who started the championship game with Mesa, Ariz. Twenty-two freshmen dot the 35-man roster.
"We have addressed those challenges,'' Mansfield said. "The target is on our back and we embrace that challenge. People are wanting to give your best shot and we can't take that for granted. This team doesn't feel any entitlement. Our young pups watched what we did last last year and they want a piece of this. They are hungry to put their stamp on the program.''
Sophomores Evan Kowalski (6-4, 3.61 ERA, 73 strikeouts in 43 innings) and Stevie Owings (4-2, 4.54 ERA, 32 strikeouts in 37 2/3 innings) will be the Saturday starters. Kowalski has recovered from a broken foot that shortened his freshman season.
"He's good,'' Mansfield said of Kowalski. "We're going to hand them (Kowalski and Owings) the ball and hope they become the aces.''
Sophomore Brandon Hudson (3-3, 6.11 ERA, 48 strikeouts in 43 innings) will battle freshmen Thomas Little of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada; Brandon Eropkin of Shawnee and Dylan Turner of Durant for a spot in the conference starting rotation.
Freshmen Alex Smith of Lawton, Trent Ritter of Bixby and sophomore Braden Hill of Edmond are other bullpen possibilities.
"We have a lot of guys who are strike throwers and have good stuff,'' Mansfield said. "We're lucky enough to have quite a bit of depth.''
Here's a position by position outlook:
Catcher — Sophomore Matthew Henderson (.360, one homer, 25 RBI) will be sharing the position with freshman Jordan Coffey of Deer Creek Edmond and Logan Rutledge of Kingfisher. All three "are really good behind the plate and at the plate,'' Mansfield said. Henderson split time catching and in the outfield. Coffey played on Enid's Connie Mack team. Rutledge hit .314 with 27 RBI in earning All-State honors.
First base — Coffey should see some time here along with freshmen lefty Kade Hitt of Royse City, Texas, and righty Cale Savage of Sand Springs. Mansfield likes having both a lefty and a righty here to give him more maneuverability.
Second base — Enid's Ambren Voitik, an All-Stater, "is locked into the position,'' Mansfield said. Voitik committed only four errors in 111 chances.
"I love watching that kid play baseball,'' Mansfield said. "He's pretty seasoned and we will rely heavily on him.''
Shortstop — Nixon moves back to his natural position after starting at second base a year ago. He has good range and a strong arm and was a good clutch hitter a year ago. Newcastle freshman Gage Ninness will be his backup.
Third base — Buonasera overcame early injuries "to do a really good job for us,'' Mansfield said. Freshman Kyle Bass of Bixby and Savage are backups. All three are known for their athleticism.
Left field — A toss-up between freshman Connor Thaxton of Duncan and sophomore Scout Capps of Dale, who redshirted last season. One may move to right as Mansfield says "we need both guys to be in the lineup.''
Center field — Freshman Merek Hawthorne of Fort Worth Chisholm Trail "is going to be a go-getter,'' Mansfield siad. "He's going to be the spark plug of our offense. We will need him to get on base and steal basel and be the guy for the middle of our lineup to drive in.''
Right field — Sophomore transfer Brett Smith is slated to start, but Thaxton or Capps are possibilities too.
DH — With his team's depth, Mansfield has a number of choices.
"We should know a lot more about ourselves after this weekend,'' Mansfield said. "I'm concerned about the youth and inexperience, but I think our toughness and our grit is really good.''