More than midway through DI-A North play last season, Sparks sat in the thick of the playoff picture.
The Railroaders were 8-8 in league contests and eyeing a return to the postseason, only to drop seven of their final eight and miss out.
“We just fell apart, for I don’t know what reason,” Sparks coach Greg Vasko said. “We started off hot. We had five or six wins in a row, then we just fell flat.”
That finish is now almost irrelevant. Not because the Railroaders are trying to forget it, which they are, but because the team looks almost entirely different.
- 2015 record: 13-15, 9-15
- Playoffs: None
- Key returners: Matt Longland, Bruce Hicks
- Key losses: Jared Sather, Alejandro Villegas, Austin Garrick, Tyler Crow, Alex Silva, Travis Dulgar, Diego Ramirez
Seven seniors, all of whom started, graduated. The massive roster turnover has tempered expectations, at least for the start of the season.
“The realistic goal is just to get better, to make these younger guys get where we can compete,” Vasko said. “In all honesty, I’d like to try to make the playoffs, but we have to crawl before we can start walking. Basically, that’s what we have to do.”
Despite the turnover, Sparks does return its two biggest offensive weapons. Bruce Hicks is entering his senior season after boasting a team-high .446 batting average last season along with 18 RBIs and seven doubles. Matt Longland also returns after hitting .429 as a sophomore while leading the team with five home runs, 32 RBIs and 10 doubles.
Sparks’ offense, and likely team as a whole, will go as Hicks and Longland go.
“I need them to be leaders. I need them to carry us a little bit,” Vasko said. “They don’t always have to hit .400, but they have to be the ones that will help lead.”
They aren’t the only returners, however. Junior Elijah Shelton hit .297 (11-for-37) last spring.
It will be Shelton, along with Hicks and Longland, that will also have to carry the brunt of the load on the mound.
Six of the seven seniors who graduated last spring pitched at least one inning.
“Those three guys (are going to throw), then we just have to find some hidden gems that are out there,” Vasko said.
Sparks will start its 2016 campaign on Friday and Saturday with a four-game non-league tournament at Lovelock before opening league play on Mar. 25 at Lowry.