Northwest baseball is focusing on the experience rather than the results as it continues its Southern tour to begin the season.
The Bearcats embarked on their new journey in an identical hole as they did last year (0-3), but this year the point is to grow and pull pressure from the “win now” stigma.
Northwest baseball took on its annual trip to Arkansas and Oklahoma as they faced off against a double threat of opponents familiar and unfamiliar. The Bearcats started with a formidable foe that knew how to break their hearts all too well: Arkansas Fort-Smith.
Last year, Fort Smith sat close to the top in a tough knit Heartland conference and finished the season 32-19.
Though the Lions claimed the sweep against the Bearcats, Fort-Smith was unable to bully the roster like they had the previous year. Last year, the Lions claimed a staggering 27-6 run advantage compared to this year's 25-13 scoring festival (3-2, 11-1, 11-10).
Considering the outlier of the middle game, the walk-off in the first game and the late rally that fell short in the third segment, the Bearcats held their own in the Lion's den.
“This year, we came out as a more polished team,” former Bearcat and assistant coach Hudson Bilodeau said. “We showed signs of playing better baseball offensively and defensively.”
With cold weather hovering over Maryville for days on end, freshman pitchers have been enclosed within Hughes Fieldhouse while trying to get a feel for live action. Coach Darin Loe used the Arkansas trip to counter that and integrate the freshmen into the show.
“We have to see those guys, and they got some good tools, and we just have to get them experience,” Loe said. “So we got a lot of guys in and out, and they’re going to be better for it in our midweek, our next week and over the course of their years.”
Over the course of the three games, Loe used five freshmen in a relief effort against the Lions offense. While Fort-Smith was teeing off on the Bearcats pitching in the second game, which resulted in an 11-1 loss for Northwest, Loe used this as an opportunity to get a feel for how these freshmen handle the pressures of the craft.
One freshman used was St. Joseph native Jacob Gill. When he came into the last inning and finished off the red-hot Lions. During that trial run, he gave up two walks, but in the process got two batters out and finished without a run given up.
“I felt prepared for the situation considering all the scrimmage hours we put in over the offseason,” Gill said. “But the nerves of it being my first outing were still there.”
While pitching faced the idea of uncertainty, the offense faced their own highs and lows. After scoring just four runs total in the first two games, they unleashed the bats for a five-run rally that fell one run short.
“In the last game of the series, we showed the ability to get up after being ‘hit in the mouth’ and answered by scoring and having big innings,” Bilodeau said. “This is something that took us a while to figure out we could do last year.”
The Bearcats may have struggled in Arkansas, but just one state to the left flourished. Tuesday Northwest dominated the game against Southeastern Oklahoma State 12-4.
Now, next on the journey to begin the season, the Bearcats go back to Arkansas, specifically Arkadelphia, as they play in the Henderson State Classic Feb. 7-9. To Loe, this is a crucial aspect to start the season right, as they push to get the ball rolling in their court.
“The experience we had last year ... the seniors had been throughout and they still had that confidence that we are still a good ball club,” Loe said. “This year, those guys have to learn that, it’s just one weekend, and you have to focus on the process of how to be successful.”