After his players returned to campus and started fall practices earlier this school year, Travis Lallemand felt like his team didn’t skip a beat.

The Crowder baseball team was 23-3 when the season was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March. On record, it was the Roughriders’ best start to a campaign in program history.

Crowder played its first game in 327 days and picked up right where it left off, defeating Vernon College 9-4 on Wednesday afternoon at Rogers State University in Claremore, Okla. And like most springs, the Roughriders enter this season with expectations as high as ever.

Crowder opens the season as the No. 6 team in the country in NJCAA Division I.

“They’ve maintained it for five to six months,” Lallemand said. “That’s pretty impressive. They weren’t just waiting for Wednesday or when we opened the season. They tried to get better each day no matter what we’re doing. We didn’t look like a team playing on opening day in two of the three aspects. Defensively, we had a couple of miscues, but we didn’t look like a team that hasn’t played in 327 days.”

Not only that, the Roughriders return the majority of their roster from last season — an offense that established itself as one of the best in the country. The Roughriders ranked first in runs scored (270) and runs batted in (230), third in home runs (43) and slugging percentage (.626), fifth in triples (14), 14th in hits (249), 16th in on-base percentage (.453), 17th in doubles (51) and batting average (.388).

Nine hitters posted averages of .325 or better. Among the top returning players, infielder Logan Chambers, outfielder Landrey Wilkerson and infielder Peyton Holt led the team with batting clips of .459, .432 and .407, respectively.

“I think the biggest thing that stands out first of all is our experience offensively,” Lallemand said. “Top-to-bottom, we’re pretty dangerous in the lineup and there’s a lot of at-bats the guys have had in the last year, last two years even some of them. We’re two-deep everywhere positionally. Those guys are well-rounded hitters. They’ve got power, but they’re also good with two strikes and they run pretty well.”

And then add in the power bats of infielders Frankie Circello and Josh Patrick, who posted slugging percentages of .831 and .747 last year, respectively.

"Patrick’s out right now with returning to play stuff with COVID, but other than that, that’s kind of our core group,” Lallemand said. “Those three to five guys are a really big part of the team. They’re the sparkplugs and the guys that will carry us. There’s a lot of talent here and probably too deep to be realistic.”

As for top newcomers, Lallemand is excited about the upside of Arkansas transfer Clayton Gray, New Mexico JUCO transfer Jeffry Mercado and BYU transfer Gavin Glasgow.

“Clayton’s an exciting player to watch,” Lallemand said. “6.4 runner. Left-handed hitter with some power. He throws the ball well. He’s going to be a big part of it. I believe Jeffry is going to make a huge impact. Gavin started at third base (against Vernon) and had some loud contact. He just didn’t have anything to show for it. They’re pieces we added to strengthen our freshmen class for next year and make us more competitive this spring.”

On the mound, James Hicks, a 6-foot-2 righty, received the opening day nod for Crowder. Lallemand said he’s a strike-thrower, who sits 88-90 miles per hour on his heater and owns a three-pitch mix.

Hicks posted a 1.35 ERA in limited action last year as a freshman. Lefty Kaleb Hill, a transfer from Ole Miss two years ago, is another pitcher Lallemand said will be one of the top starters this season.

And Lallemand said there’s more depth.

“Probably our most consistent guy is Dylan Carter, who’s signed at Arkansas for next year,” Lallemand said. “He made a huge jump and is a high-profile guy. He’s definitely going to be up there. Jacob Misiorowski is a highly-touted prospect. He’ll be in the mix for the rotation. And then you’ve got guys like Chandler Ashby. Axel Camacho was our No. 4 last year. We have some power arms that are going to be spread in different areas throughout the year. It’s exciting going in because we feel like we have 14 guys we can count on pitching-wise.”

Crowder returns to action today for its home opener against Labette Community College at 2 p.m.

“One of my main goals is to let them go play and stay out of the way of progress,” Lallemand said. “Let them play and watch what develops out of it. Hopefully, this team can play well into May and hopefully into June.”

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