CONCORDIA – Coming off their winningest season since in 20 years and the program's first-ever appearance in the second round of the Central Plains District Tournament, the Cloud County Community College baseball team is poised to take another step forward in 2020 as the season gets underway on Saturday with a 1 p.m. doubleheader at Fort Scott Community College.
After going 34-24 overall last season, the T-Birds return 16 players from a squad that also clinched the first Region VI Tournament home playoff series after going 18-14 in Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference play. Prior to last year, you would have had to go back to the 2002 campaign to find a CCCC squad that finished as high as last year's Cloud County team did in the KJCCC West Division.
Things haven't always been as bright as the current prospect of this year's T-Bird squad is as fourth-year head coach Eric Gilliland will tell you. Prior to the Concordia native's arrival as head coach, the T-Birds hadn't recorded a winning record since 2003 and finished no higher than fifth in the Jayhawk West Division in each of the past 14 seasons. Since taking over, Cloud County has improved its win total in the KJCCC and has recorded no fewer than 27 wins in each of the three years that Gilliland has been head coach.
Following a 28-31 campaign in 2017, The T-Birds would secure a winning record in 2018 by going 27-26 and just missing out on hosting a home Region VI Playoff series. It wouldn't be a long wait however as last year's record-setting performances would lead CCCC to Wichita and the District Tournament where they would secure their first win in the tournament over Butler in an elimination game and push top overall seed Hutchinson to the brink of elimination before falling by a score of 14-12 to see their season come to an end.
Ready to take another step forward, the T-Birds bring back a strong core that has already seen four of their 16 returners sign national letters of intent to play NCAA Division I baseball next fall. Pitchers Bradan Pierce (Oral Roberts signee) and Josh Laukkanen (New Mexico State signee) will look to anchor the starting rotation for Cloud County as the duo would combine to 29 appearances and 15 starts on the mound while throwing a total of 87.1 innings. Pierce would record 12.62 strikeouts per nine innings last year and strikeout 43 batters while allowing just 29 hits. Laukkanen would have similar numbers, striking out 55 batters in 56.2 innings and allowing just 32 earned runs while also providing four hits and two doubles on the offensive side of things.
Cloud County will look towards Clayton Loranger (Stephen F. Austin signee) and Connor Laux (New Mexico State signee) to provide offense in the lineup as Loranger would start 57 of 58 games for CCCC last year and have a .409 on-base percentage with 26 RBI and 10 doubles. Laux was a versatile player for the T-Birds last season, playing numerous positions in the infield and appearing in 51 games as a freshman while recording a .308 batting average and .419 on-base percentage.
In what has become a season-opening tradition, Cloud County will open the season at Fort Scott for the fourth year in a row as the T-Birds and Greyhounds met up for a season-opening doubleheader last year which saw the two teams split the two games. This weekend is set for a four-game series with CCCC and FSCC playing a 1 p.m. doubleheader on both Saturday and Sunday. Cloud County will then travel to Edmond Oklahoma to play three games in two days at the University of Central to take on Northeast Oklahoma A&M, Coffeyville, and Seminole State College. The 2020 home opener for the T-Birds is slated for March 18 when CCCC takes on Southeast Community College at 2 p.m.
Fans will have 26 chances to catch the T-Birds in action at home this season, including 16 times against KJCCC West Division opponents. Jayhawk Conference play will begin on March 5 for CCCC when the T-Birds host Seward County in a 1 p.m. doubleheader. Other key games on the schedule this year include a March 24 home game against last year's JUCO World Series participant Cowley at 2 p.m. and a regular-season ending home doubleheader against Barton Community College on May 2.