By KIRK HARDCASTLE
NIACC sports information director
MASON CITY – The dress rehearsal is over.
The NIACC baseball team went 13-8 in its non-conference portion of its schedule that included games in Kansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma and Iowa.
So after 21 games, the Trojans open the ICCAC part of their schedule Saturday and Sunday in a four-game series against DMACC in Boone.
"We have to be ready to go," said fifth-year NIACC coach Travis Hergert, whose team is seeking a third straight trip to the NJCAA Division II World Series. "I think we'll be up for the challenge that lies ahead."
After starting the season 1-3 against Kansas City CC, NIACC has won 12 of its last 17 games, including taking two out of three from Northern Oklahoma College-Enid and splitting a four-game series with Iowa Western.
NIACC also topped No. 13 (NJCAA Division I) Crowder College 5-3 in 10 innings and No. 18 (NJCAA Division I) Barton CC 9-6.
"I think we've improved since the opening weekend in Kansas City," Hergert said. "We've made a ton of growth, but we still have a long ways to go.
"We have some things to work out in our lineup and are trying to get into a rhythm with. All in all, I've seen a ton of improvement, especially with a group that's very inexperienced."
Inexperienced might be an understatement.
Gone from a NIACC lineup that hit a school record 130 home runs last season are Robbie Glendinning (25 home runs), Malique Ziegler (22 home runs, Troy Bullingham (18 home runs) and Austin LaDoux (17 home runs).
Glendinning, who is the school's career leader in hits, home runs, doubles, RBIs and runs scored and at-bats, is playing at the University of Missouri, Ziegler is in the San Francisco Giants organization and LaDoux is playing at Grand Valley State University.
"It's a little different, especially from last year with the power numbers that we had and I think that's still to come," Hergert said. "Brandon Michie has done a nice job. Bryce Ball has done a solid job and Ezequias Encarnacion has been a surprise for us."
Ball, a former Newman Catholic standout, leads the Trojans with a .418 batting average with eight doubles and 16 RBis. Michie is hitting .338 with four doubles, three triples and two home runs with 17 RBIs.
Encarnacion is hitting .64 with five doubles and 16 RBIs.
"The middle part of our order with Michie, Ball and Encarnacion has done a fantastic job of driving guys in," Hergert said. (Matt) Schwarz has been solid in the lead-off spot and Joey Werner has been good in the 2-hole."
As far as the pitching staff, Hergert also has an inexperienced group this season. Tyler Jacobsen is the only pitcher that saw significant action a year ago appearing in 16 games with a 2.10 earned run average.
Ryan Huntington, who pitched in the 2015 season, also returns after missing the 2016 campaign with an arm injury.
"I've been pleased with the consistency of our pitching," Hergert said. "We don't have a (Quinn) Ahern, (Daniel) Loats, (Derek) Lieurance), (Lucas) Bakker or (Tim) Black, but we've got six or seven guys that are quality guys in that slot.
"I think a big strength lies in the backend of our bullpen with guys like Jacobsen, (Chase) Stewart, (Ty) Yewman, (Christian) Vogler and Huntington. We have some depth there."
On defense, Hergert said the strength is in the shortstop/second base combo of Connor Enochs and Michie.
"Connor has done a fantastic job at shortstop," the coach said. "He's been a little inconsistent at the plate and we need to get him going there.
"Michie and Enochs up the middle have been fantastic. They are a great pair up the middle."
NIACC was 47-16 overall and 22-6 in the ICCAC in the 2016 season. The Trojans tied Southeastern for the ICCAC regular season title and cruised through the NJCAA Region XI tournament outscoring the opponent 50-12 in four games.
The Trojans then took a 3-game series (2-1) from DCTC in the North Plains District tournament to advance to the World Series for the third time in four seasons.
Now this team begins its own journey.
"This is really a brand new team," Hergert said.