Ranked Tritons off to solid start

No shortage of optimism surrounds the Iowa Central baseball program once again this spring.

After finishing 37-16 overall last season, the Tritons will lean on a group of 15 sophomores to provide valuable leadership in their quest for a 10th-ever NJCAA Div. II World Series berth.

Head coach Rick Pederson enters his 12th year at the helm with a 447-210-1 career mark, which includes five seasons of 40-plus victories and a national runner-up showing in 2003. Under Pederson’s direction, Iowa Central has garnered 60 all-Region XI selections, with 21 of those players being first-team nominees.

“Like always, our expectations are to get to the World Series,” Pederson said. “We have a shot, but we have to see what happens. We lost 8-6 in the regional finals last year (against North Iowa Area) in a game that we led 6-2 in the bottom of the seventh. (The Trojans) then eventually went on and got fifth place at the national tournament.”

So far in 2014, Iowa Central has managed a 13-8 record through 21 games. The Tritons, who are ranked 17th in the latest NJCAA Div. II poll, are currently 2-2 in the ICCAC following a series split against then-No. 16 Des Moines Area here this past weekend.

“Talent-wise, I think we can control our own destiny,” said Pederson. “Our hang-up, though, is this is probably the most inexperienced team I’ve ever coached. We only return one offensive starter, and we have a lot of new faces.

“We’ve also played arguably the toughest schedule since I’ve been (at Iowa Central), with 12 of our first 13 games against nationally-ranked opponents. We’re kind of figuring things out on the run, but I think we can accomplish some great things.”

Pitching

Anchoring the front end of Iowa Central’s rotation are sophomores Ryan Boelter and Alex Hayden. Boelter went 2-0 in just 18 1/3 innings of work a year ago, spanning five appearances. Hayden was 4-3 in 43 2/3 innings, covering 10 outings

Boelter and Hayden have combined for seven wins in 10 starts this year.

“Boelter and Hayden have really solidified the top of our staff,” Pederson said. “Going into this season, our pitching and infield defense were our two strengths. We just haven’t thrown as many strikes as I would’ve liked to see, and we’ve walked too many people (ICCC’s pitchers have issued 74 free passes in 142 1/3 innings). We’ve either played excellent or below average so far. It’s going to take some time to find that consistency we’re looking for.”

Closer Luke Vandermaten (Fort Dodge) owns a 1-0 mark with eight saves this year. The Iowa Hawkeye recruit sports a miniscule 0.60 ERA, while holding opponents to a .220 batting average. As a freshman, Vandermaten went 9-1 with a 1.47 ERA in 49 innings en route to earning honorable mention all-region honors.

“We made the decision in January to go with Vandermaten as our closer, and it’s paid off well so far,” said Pederson. “He’s leading the country in saves right now. Luke’s a mental boost for us and a deflater for other teams.”

Joe Hawks, Abrahan Flete and Nate Steger supply the Tritons with quality depth.

Infield

Newcomers Justin Smith and Christian Montero will platoon behind the dish. Smith and Montero have combined for 19 hits, 14 RBI and 12 runs scored in the early going.

“Smith is more of a defensive guy, and Montero is a better offensive player,” Pederson said. “We go with whatever we need that gives us the best chance to win.”

Jason Galeano and Michael Kinning are locked in a battle at first base. Galeano is hitting .340 with 17 hits, 11 runs and seven RBI.

Handling duties up the middle is the double-play tandem of second baseman Tanner Buenting and shortstop Andy DeJesus, an Indiana State recruit. Buenting and DeJesus are tied for the team lead in hits (26). Buenting, a former Ankeny standout, also paces Iowa Central in runs (20), on-base percentage (.552) and walks (18), while DeJesus has collected 15 RBI and is a perfect 5-for-5 on stolen base attempts.

“Buenting and DeJesus are hitting 1-2 in our order,” said Pederson. “We’re in good hands up the middle.”

Occupying the hot corner is the Winston-Salem State commit Steger, who is batting a team-best .421 with 24 hits, 17 runs, 12 RBI and 10 doubles in 20 games. Eleven of Steger’s hits have actually went for extra bases – 10 doubles and one home run – for a .649 slugging percentage.

Outfield

Noah Pickard, Damian Rutherford, Will Gormally (Fort Dodge), Conner Phillips and Kinning will all roam the outfield spots at various times. Pickard holds a .310 average with 18 hits, 11 RBI and 10 runs. Rutherford is batting .292 with 19 hits, 15 RBI, 10 runs and a team-high two longballs.

Conference Outlook

In addition to his Tritons, Pederson views Des Moines Area (44-11 overall, 19-7 in the ICCAC a year ago), North Iowa Area (30-18, 13-11) and Ellsworth (17-31, 8-16) as the league frontrunners.

“The regional tournament is going to be very interesting,” Pederson said. “Every game will be meaningful in determining the champion.”

Other familiar area names on Iowa Central’s roster include Tyler Vaughn (Fort Dodge), Trey Kehoe (Prairie Valley), Austin Vaske (Bishop Garrigan) and Clay Collison (Algona).

Assisting Pederson are Lyle Stevens, Justin Meyer, Eric Stein and Sean O’Brien.

Next home action for the Tritons is Tuesday against Rochester (Minn.). The Region XI Tournament is set for May 8-12 at Riverfront Stadium in Waterloo.