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COLLEGE BASEBALL: Early start for Danville Area Community College

Feb. 7—DANVILLE — The warmer temperatures this week has every baseball enthusiast counting down the days until pitchers and catchers report for spring training in Florida and Arizona.

While the Major League guys will wait until next week to get their preparations underway for the 2024 season, their counterparts at the collegiate level have already started the practice process and this weekend is first set of games for NJCAA teams like Danville Area Community College.

With a revamped schedule this season, the Jaguars will open their campaign with a trip to the USA Baseball facility in Millington, Tenn., for five games in three days. DACC will return to Millington the next weekend (Feb. 16-18) for six more games. These two weekend trips replace the team's weeklong trek to Myrtle Beach, S.C.

"We are trying some different things this year," said DACC coach Clayton Hicks. "We want to try to play some better competition to get us ready for our very challenging conference season. We hope that beefing up this portion of our schedule will prepare us for what lies ahead in the conference season."

And what about the earlier start? Normally, DACC traveled to Myrtle Beach in early March.

"It's about three weeks earlier this season, but that's been a trend of other schools in our league," Hicks said. "It fives our arms a little more time to get ready. We are not going to ask one of our starters to give us 80 pitches in their first game. I think we are going to cap our guys to 50-60 pitches and let them build up from there. We want to try to get everyone through their first games.

"The earlier start is also better for hitters, it allows them to see different competition instead of spending all of that time in a cage."

After those first two weekends in Millington, DACC has two more weekends of non-conference play with four games against Kankakee in Rantoul and then three games in Mattoon against McHenry College and Olney Central College before opening league play on March 9.

With out weekend competition over the first four weeks, Hicks is looking forward to the additional practice time.

"You get to see in-game adjustments that we need to make and implement them into our practice plans," he said. "Usually, when we open in Myrtle Beach, we get in town play a mid-week game and then start conference play. It's hard to make some of those adjustments before we start a very challenging conference season.

"Hopefully, this will also allow guys time to heal, if they need it, and just give us some additional rest for the season."

Hicks also pointed out that his team will not miss a full week of school as they have done in the past.

So, what does he want to see from this opening 11 games of the season?

"First off, I hope we come back healthy," he said. "If you remember, we lost three pitchers during our trip to Myrtle Beach last year.

"And then, we hope the communication is there, because that's something we have been working on since August, and the physical stuff will follow."

With the early start this season, DACC will only play a handful of mid-week games this season, instead concentrating mainly on its conference four-game series.

"Because of the weather, at times last year, we would have our conference games pushed back to Monday and Tuesday, and then you would have a couple of mid-week games, followed by four more conference games on Saturday and Sunday. We wound up playing 10 games in a seven-day stretch.

"It became a lot to keep players healthy. We were just burning them out. Hopefully, this schedule will keep us healthy and give us a chance to get a little additional rest between conference matchups."

The Jaguars, who went 18-31 a year ago, return six of their top-seven hitters from a year ago including Cody Morton, who led the team in average (.366), doubles (21), home runs (6), RBIs (36) and stolen bases (20).

Other key offensive returners for DACC include Brock Bacus, Adam Evans, Drew Pinkston, Jackson Raaf and Mason Rice. The Jaguars had a .292 team batting average and they averaged 6.2 runs a game.

"Offensively, we should be really strong," Hicks said. "I hope we continue to put up the offensive numbers that we did last year."

Pitching and defense is where Hicks wants to see improvement this year.

Sam Monk, a 6-foot-1 freshman from Deland, Fla., will be the game 1 starter for DACC.

"He has been up to 91 already this season," Hicks said. "Isaiah Head will also be a huge piece. He has been 91 to 93. Arm-wise, we have gotten better."

Hicks also notes that Logan Elsbury, Brennan Rawlins and Reston Morehouse will all return. That trio combined for more than 100 innings a year ago. Additionally, Carter Wambach is hopeful to return mid-season from Tommy John surgery.

"Last year was a really hard year," Hicks said. "I keep telling these guys that we were really young with a lot of freshman, who didn't know what to prepare for and didn't know what a college season looking like. So, we took it on the chin.

"I think those struggles last year have made us better and it made this group work harder for this year."

The first home game this season for DACC will be a Mid-West Athletic Conference doubleheader on March 9th against Illinois Central College. First pitch at Danville Stadium is set for 1 p.m.