Two talking points were raised prior to the 2018 World Series regarding so-called concerns with Freed-Hardeman — it was notably young and hadn’t been there before.
Well, they’ve been there now. But sure, the seventh-seeded Lions are still green. They’ve got freshmen at catcher, second and third; their top cat on the mound is a rookie and the offensive instigator is a sophomore.
Troubling? Not so much; youth’s been nowhere near problematic in the past.
“Our young guys that were a part of (last year’s) run felt from the beginning that we’re capable,” said 10th-year coach Jonathan Estes. “They’ve grown up fast, matured and now they’ll get a chance to perform at that level again, which not a lot of young guys do.
“If another team has freshmen doing the things our guys have been doing, I’d be surprised.”
After all, FHU is the reigning runner-up. Yes, it’s the No. 7 seed once again, and it’s familiarly proficient.
Add a year of advancement.
Estes said his team is even better going into the program’s second Avista NAIA World Series appearance, which begins when the Lions get 10th-seeded Lewis-Clark State at 7 tonight at Harris Field.
First off, FHU (47-15) never hit a monthlong patch of “mediocre ball,” like it did in ’18, Estes noted. It’s been deemed a Series favorite from the outset.
Even after dropping one to No. 12 Oklahoma Wesleyan in the NAIA Opening Round, “we knew we had a good chance to win, and never lost that feeling,” Estes said of his team’s vet-like attitude.
Three straight triumphs a day and a half later, FHU was back for another shot at a title.
“We had little hiccups, but we’ve sustained a high level of play from start to finish,” Estes said. That’s resulted in 26 American Midwest Conference regular-season wins, the most in league history.
The Lions scheduled early-year nonleague tilts with the likes of Series mainstay Faulkner and 2019 entrant Indiana Tech. “Battle-tested” would be Estes’ choice motto for this campaign.
“When there’s that familiarity with Series opponents, and we competed with ’em, there’s definitely confidence there to succeed on a larger scale,” Estes said.
Taking a gander at the numbers, the Lions have every right to be self-assured.
FHU’s pitching led the way last year, and it’s been augmented with freshman — and conference pitcher of the year — Alex Huey, who’s “been setting the tone all season,” Estes said. He owns five complete games, three shutouts, a 12-1 record and 2.34 ERA.
It’s a pretty solid boost to a rotation that still boasts all-leaguers Austin Steel and Jacob Sawyers.
Remember them? Two of FHU’s big-gun starters in last year’s Series? Both hurled well then, and both collected wins.
Moreover, the Lions brought in Lyon College transfer Tyson Campbell, the 2018 conference pitcher of the year who only played nonleague games because of a transfer rule.
Together, they comprise the NAIA’s seventh-ranked ERA (3.46) and are No. 14 in total strikeouts.
“Whoever’s on the mound is our ace,” Estes said. “Those four starters give us a chance and allow our bullpen to settle in.”
Landon Sewell has slid seamlessly into the closer role. He’s seventh in the NAIA in saves (10).
“At this stage, you’re gonna have to have pitchers giving you a chance, and our’s have all year. Our offense is comfortable — you don’t have to score eight, 10 runs.”
To be sure, the Lions have some pop, too. In fact, they have the AMC MVP. That’d be 300-pound Josh Sears, a monster sophomore slugger (21 home runs, 73 RBI) who’s cracked more dingers than all but one Series-participating player.
“He’s broken the single-season RBI record for us already,” said Estes, whose top-to-bottom share-the-load lineup is hitting about or above .300 and is ninth nationally in hits.
“He broke the career home run record too. When he’s going, the offense is potent.”
Additionally, they’re faster — junior Collin Baber is the NAIA’s No. 1 in stolen bags — and still possess that vaunted defensive efficiency (.962) that so many spectators lauded at the ’18 Series.
Put it all together, you’d think they were seasoned Series vets.
“We approached the tournament last year treating every game like the title,” Estes said. “It’s been on our minds a lot, for about the past 350 days.” l
Location: Henderson, Tenn.
Coach: Jonathan Estes (10th year)
Season record: 47-15
Rank in final NAIA poll: No. 9
How qualified: Won Henderson Bracket
Number of previous appearance; best finish: one; runner-up in 2018.
> Juice (out of five stars)
Newbie Huey (12-1, 2.34 ERA) leads a four-ace bunch that includes transfer Campbell — last year’s conference pitcher of the year out of Lyon — and Steel and Sawyers, both of whom own 10-3 records and ’18 Series wins.
Closer Sewell is No. 7 in the NAIA in saves, and he and White comprise an adequate 1-2 punch.
Fault-lacking defense helped vault FHU to the title game in ’18. Estes says there’s been little if any dropoff.
The Lions are ranked ninth in total knocks, and average over 10 of them per game. Sears is the sure-fire catalyst with 21 HR and 73 RBI. There’s a little downtick behind him, but the lineup’s sound.
Baber’s atop the NAIA in stolen bases (47). In all, FHU’s swiped 111 bags, No. 22 nationally.
Second place in Series appearance No. 1 last year? Not a shabby building block for a still-young but considerably more consistent group.