Three Rivers coach Tyler Smith thinks he might have one of the best bullpens in college baseball. “We’ve got a lot of guys who are going to help us in the pen. I’m a big believer that if we can lock down games and be ahead ... I think we’re going to win a lot of games,” said Smith, who is entering his first season as head coach after Stacey Burkey retired last spring. “We’ve got more depth than we’ve ever had. I feel like we generally have, positionwise, any guy can be put in a spot and be successful. Same thing on the mound.
We’ve got 15-17 guys you can put on the mound and feel like we’re going to get the job done, and it’s a nice problem to have.” The Raiders’ No. 1 pitcher last year, Kieren Hall, is heading to the back end of the bullpen. He will help close games alongside one of last year’s closers in Austin Brock. Chad Donze is projected to be the Raiders’ new No. 1 pitcher, followed by Jake Uber and Cody Bond. “That gives us three starters at the front end of our rotation who can really throw 5-6 innings and go toe-totoe with anybody we face and give us the ability to get deep into the games,” Smith said. Poplar Bluff alum Sam Pierce is projected to eat some innings while competing to be one of the midweek starters.
Fellow Mule Mason Libla will start at catcher and split time with Cade Cancilla. “It’s nice to have that flexibility where you have a lot of guys who can do a lot of things,” Smith said. It’s been about a year since the Raiders played a game. They played 22 games last season before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down and then presented consistent challenges throughout the year, such as scheduling and a restricted window in the fall to have scrimmages. Three Rivers was able to get six dates in with games in the fall as Smith worked on getting the team back into baseball shape. “Conditioning them, where baseball-related they could do it, it took some time. We’re just now finally getting back to where they kind of understand how to play again,” he said. Players have also taken advantage of the new Gene Bess weight room in the Libla Family Sports Complex. “We’ve hammered the weight room. Strength is a big deal for all young athletes,” Smith said. “I feel like we’ve prepared on the physical side and the mental side.” The challenges keep coming, though.
Both Three Rivers softball and baseball fields have been upgraded this winter with new dugouts, fencing behind home plate, and other improvements. One of which was fixing drainage problems at the baseball field. Smith recently learned that unanticipated construction problems will extend the project, and the Raiders will not have any games at Roger Pattillo Field this season. Smith said they are exploring options on where to play home games. “Worst case scenario, we’ll be visitors every game. Obviously not ideal, but we get to play baseball. So it’s exciting no matter what,” Smith said. “When all of this stuff gets finished, we’re going to have one of the nicest athletic facilities. Not just baseball. Softball, basketball, weight room, literally one of the nicest athletic facilities in the country. The excitement of that allows us to be OK with what is going on.”
Three Rivers kicks off its season with a road game against Lyon JV at noon Friday. The Raiders are slated to have their home opener at noon March 6 against Marshalltown. They plan to play 50 games this spring instead of 56, including four games against each Region XVI opponent. “Our region is competitively one of the top regions in the country. You win our region, you go to the national tournament a majority of the time,” Smith said. “That’s what we’re competing with, and that’s what we’re excited to tackle. I tell every kid, if you can be successful in our region, you can be successful anywhere. So it is a fun challenge for sure.”
Scott Borkgren - Daily American Republic