COLUMBIA, MO. — Missouri baseball coach Steve Bieser believes his fourth roster had the talent and depth for the Tigers to earn their fist NCAA regional berth since 2012, but hopes for a breakthrough season hit a wall long before the Tigers could even rake the infield dirt.
The November ruling against the school’s appeal of NCAA sanctions forced Bieser to recalibrate the Tigers’ annual goal.
Knowing that MU’s May 16 regular-season finale against Texas A&M will be the final game the Tigers play this year — like the MU softball team this season, the baseball program is banned from the Southeastern Conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament — Bieser gave his team two ambitious milestones to pursue over the next four months:
1. Win 40 games.
2. Win the SEC regular-season championship.
What do they have to lose?
“Our postseason is the SEC,” Bieser said. “So we’re going to go out and do some damage in the SEC.”
That’s easier said than done, but after just missing the NCAA field of 64 each of the last two years, Bieser believes this team, with an infusion of newcomers in the lineup and a remade pitching staff, can build on last year’s progress, when the Tigers finished 34-22-1 and won half their 10 SEC series with a 4-1 SEC series record at Taylor Stadium.
First, though, the Tigers had to overcome what right-hander Konnor Ash called the “devastating” news that the NCAA appeals committee upheld the team’s postseason ban. The NCAA hit Bieser’s team with the same penalties as the football and softball teams after ruling that former shortstop Ryan Howard turned in 12 homework assignments completed by former MU statistics tutor Yolanda Kumar prior to Howard playing in the 2016 season — even though Howard dropped the course before the semester ended. The NCAA’s report didn’t disclose identities of the athletes involved, but Kumar has since tweeted photos of the NCAA paperwork that included the athletes’ names. Bieser was coaching at Southeast Missouri State when the violations occurred, while MU’s oldest players were still in high school.
The Tigers were on Thanksgiving break when the NCAA upheld the school’s appeal.
“The guys were very distraught,” Bieser said. “It took about three days to see our guys start to just feel normal again. Then after that, we sat down, we talked as a team. The one thing in our program we always talk about is we’re just going to control the controllables. This isn’t something that we can control. So we’re going to move on and do the best we can with what we’ve been dealt.”
Starting with this weekend’s season-opening series at Jacksonville State, the Tigers expect to have a more robust lineup despite the loss of first baseman/outfielder Kameron Misner, the 35th overall selection in last summer’s MLB draft. Second baseman Mark Vierling (CBC) is back after a strong year and forms part of a nucleus of former Metro Catholic Conference standouts with third baseman Luke Mann (Vianney) and designated hitter Peter Zimmermann (Chaminade). Additions to the lineup include first baseman Brandt Belk, a transfer from Pepperdine, and center fielder Seth Halvorsen, a redshirt freshman who missed all but a few games last season with an elbow injury and should figure into the pitching staff too.
“Overall from top to bottom offensively, we’re a better offensive club right now than any of the first few seasons,” Bieser said.
On the mound, the Tigers have to replace their weekend starters, including All-SEC ace T.J. Sikkema, another 2019 first-round draft pick, but Ash and shutdown reliever Ian Bedell should slide into the top of the rotation. Both pitched in the Cape Cod League last summer with Bedell going 4-0 in six starts with a 0.58 ERA.
“If we pitch well,” Ash said, “we’re going to have some success.”
For the Tigers to get anywhere close to Bieser’s lofty goal, they’ll have to navigate through another brutal SEC schedule. In league play, the Tigers play five teams currently ranked in the top 10 of the USA Today coaches poll with home series against No. 1 Vanderbilt, No. 4 Georgia and No. 9 Auburn plus road series at No. 6 Mississippi State and No. 10 Florida.
For motivation, the Tigers need look no further than their counterparts on the softball diamond. Smacked with the same postseason ban, Larissa Anderson’s team opened with a 5-0 weekend and climbed into the national rankings as high as No. 16.
“We all saw it,” Ash said. “That’s the plan for us. They went out there and they want to prove something. That’s the same thing for us.”