Creighton baseball coach Ed Servais said he hasn’t brought up last year much at all with his already motivated ballclub.
The Jays have star power, experience and a vision. They don’t need disappointment and heartbreak to fuel their competitive spirit as they prepare for this new season to begin.
They know what they can accomplish. They’re good. NCAA regional good.
Their demeanor in practice indicates that they plan to do everything possible to prove it.
“Sometimes you get that with older players — and this is an older team,” Servais said. “There’s a sense of urgency with them.”
Perhaps some of that drive does stem from last season.
The Jays ended up No. 62 in the RPI, with a perfect midweek record, with a series victory at Minnesota (an eventual super regional qualifier) and with two separate seven-game winning streaks.
Yet they did not qualify for their league tournament. They had the same conference record as fourth-place Georgetown and lost the tiebreaker.
In other words, they were close. And it stung.
“We have not dwelled on that, though,” Servais said. “There was one day when I felt like they needed a motivator, so we talked about it for like 30 seconds. But it’s not something that we’re doing.
“We’re looking forward. I’ve not sensed that we’ve needed to go back.”
Probably because the present is so promising.
Creighton has a right fielder, Will Robertson, who has garnered as much preseason buzz as any CU player in the last decade. He’s being labeled as an early-round MLB draft pick. Second baseman Isaac Collins consistently produced in the talent-filled Cape Cod League last summer, so he’ll have the attention of professional scouts as well.
Those two budding talents will lead a lineup that could very well feature eight upperclassmen when CU opens the season at Arkansas-Little Rock on Friday.
The Jays also have experience in the bullpen. Their weekend rotation won’t begin the year with a proven ace, but there are three seniors (Mitch Ragan, Denson Hull and Evan Johnson) who emerged in their roles last fall and never lost ground during the past three weeks of practice.
It seems like a roster built to make a run at an NCAA regional.
But that’s the hurdle Creighton hasn’t cleared since 2012.
There have been Jays squads capable of getting there, but they’ve stumbled at the wrong time. CU won Big East regular-season titles in 2014 and 2017, but lost in the league tournament each time. Creighton’s RPI was No. 48 in 2016, but it missed out on an at-large bid.
Perhaps this 2019 group can break through. It’s certainly what the Jays are aiming to do.
“This is my third year here, and I think for the older guys on the team, that’s something we haven’t been able to experience,” Robertson said. “That’s our main goal going into the season, trying to get to that regional.”
Sign up for World-Herald daily sports updates
Get the headlines from Creighton, Nebraska, UNO, high schools and other area teams.
Key returners So. C Garrett Gilbert, Jr. 1B Jason Allbery, Jr. 2B Isaac Collins, Sr. SS Jack Strunc, Sr. 3B Jordan Hovey
Notable newcomers Jr. DH Jake Holton, So. C David Vilches
Catcher Michael Emodi was the centerpiece to CU’s infield last year, but he has now started his professional career. Gilbert is expected to step in at the position. But the Jays will need new leaders as well. That’s where Collins and Strunc have to emerge. Third baseman Thomas Luevano’s Creighton career is over after he underwent Tommy John surgery in the offseason.
Key returners Jr. RF Will Robertson, Jr. CF Parker Upton, Sr. LF Ryan Mantle
Notable newcomers So. OF Will Hanafan
The Jays know what they’re going to get from Robertson, who led the team in batting average (.333), home runs (12) and RBIs (59) as its top right fielder last season. Upton’s athleticism has made him the lead candidate to replace Clark Brinkman in center. Mantle moved to left field late in the 2018 season and seemed to find a comfort zone there.
Key returners Sr. RHP Mitch Ragan, Sr. LHP Denson Hull, Sr. RHP Evan Johnson
Notable newcomers Fr. LHP Paul Bergstrom, Fr. RHP Ryan Windham
The biggest questions heading into the 2019 season are probably right here. Ryan Tapani (10-1, 2.38) provided such a tone-setting presence on Fridays for Creighton last year. Can the Jays fill that void? Ragan found a groove late in the season (1.97 ERA in his last five outings). Hull and Johnson will get their chances, too.
Key returners Sr. RHP Bobby Kametas, Jr. RHP Mitch Boyer, Jr. RHP Jonah Smith, Jr. LHP Justin Wick
Notable newcomers So. LHP Thomas Swafford, Jr. RHP Ben Dotzler
CU spent nearly half of the season last year trying to sort out relief roles. The goal is for an experienced group to settle in faster this time around. Kametas, Boyer and Smith all have been called on during high-pressure moments. Creighton does need a left-hander to call on — Grant Spranger was the specialist last year, ranking second on the team with 28 appearances. Perhaps that’s where Wick steps in.