It was shortly over a year ago that Horatio baseball coach Lance Spigner announced he was leaving that post to begin a baseball program at UA-Rich Mountain in Mena. At that point Rich Mountain baseball existed only in theory. A multitude of changes has occurred since then.
“The main change is we’ve got about 35 guys who trusted us enough to be part of the program,” Spigner said. “Secondly, there is the construction of facilities.” Construction is nearing completion on student housing, weight room and an indoor athletic facility not to mention playing fields for baseball, softball and soccer.
The entire athletic venture was started from scratch. Spigner’s first order of business was finding players. “The very first thing I did, after we got beat in the semi-finals (at Mountain Home) last year, I never came home. I just drove to Batesville to begin scouting the 4A state tournament,” he recalled.
This was last May. Other colleges had been recruiting for months. “I hit the road. We were little bit behind on recruiting scale. I tried to build a class as quickly as possible,” the coach explained.
He had a lot of work to do. “A lot of players did not realize there was a college in Mena, Arkansas. Slowly but surely, the word started to get out to players. Eventually players started reaching out to us,” said Spigner.
“It’s much easier for kids to get exposure with social media, internet online recruiting questionnaires. It’s never been easier to get noticed. Add in select baseball. From the recruiting side, it’s nice to see so many good players gathered together to play on any given weekend.”
In 28 years of coaching at Horatio, Spigner had an enormous list of coaching acquaintances. “As soon as I took the job, I got the word out to everybody in my phone, who coached high school baseball, we were looking for players then and in the future,” he said.
Rich Mountain will be the fourth junior college in the state to field a baseball team. North Arkansas Community College in Harrison and Arkansas Baptist in North Little Rock have had teams for years. National Park College in Hot Springs took the field for the first time this season.
“Junior college baseball options in Arkansas have been limited,” Spigner noted. “A lot of good players have been leaving the state to play junior college baseball in Oklahoma. We want to cut them off, give them the option to play junior college baseball in Arkansas.
“Three of my former (Horatio) players are at National Park College. They started this year. Now there are more options for guys who chose the junior college route.”
When Spigner took the Rich Mountain coaching job, he had to start at square one. “It was a unique situation in that we had to build the entire roster. We had needs at every position,” he said. “You always want to start with pitchers, especially at the college level. With so many games, the staff needs to be so deep. You can’t get as many as you want.”
After pitchers, he focused on the positions up middle of the field: catcher, shortstop, second base and center field. “I love shortstops. If a kid is athletic enough to play shortstop, there is a good chance he can move to other positions and play those.”
He may have begun his recruiting with an eye to defense, but he pointed out “I also like to score runs. We have some guys who can really hit. Maybe there is a little bit of something they need to improve on to get to the next level, we’ll give them that opportunity.”
Another trait the coach sought is versatility. “We have some guys with the chance to be two-way players, pitch and play another position as well. It’s important in building a program to get as many of those guys as we can,” Spigner said.
“Probably over 50 percent of the roster is from Arkansas. We got a lot of players from central Arkansas and quite a few Northwest Arkansas guys. We have a couple of shortstops from Texas. We got a really good player from Broken Bow and even one from as far away as the very southern part of Louisiana.”
Rich Mountain baseball is National Junior College Athletic Association Region 2, Division 2. “Region is basically like a conference in high school,” the coach said. “There are six Oklahoma schools and two from Arkansas.”
Rich Mountain and National Park are the Arkansas schools. The Oklahoma schools are: Carl Albert, Murray State, Redlands, Western Oklahoma State, Northern Oklahoma State - Enid and Northern Oklahoma State - Tonkawa.
It is a strong baseball league. NOC - Enid was national champion last year. “They finished third in the regular season,” Spigner said. “That’s how strong this region is, really good baseball.”
Junior college baseball has an enticement that four year colleges cannot offer. “One benefit of junior college baseball is you can play 20 games in the fall. That’s a selling point,” said the coach. “It’s largely informal. It can start as early as Aug. 27 and ends in mid-November.”
The Spring of 2020 was going to be an unusual one for Spigner to start with. “For the first time in about 30 years, I didn’t have a baseball team of my own this spring,” he said.
“My goals for 2020 were to watch the players we had signed play some, and to watch our competition when they played close to home at National Park and Carl Albert. I wanted to get an idea of what we’re going be up against. The other thing was to start scouting and recruiting the 2021 grads. Without a team, on any day I was free to go watch, get a leg up on scouting.”
Like nearly everyone else on the planet, Spigner’s plans for 2020 were disrupted by the coronavirus. High school spring sports seasons were cancelled which played havoc with his scouting plans. “The virus really hurt us in that respect,” he said.
Spigner is more than a little excited about the baseball field being built for the Rich Mountain team. “Anyone who knows me knows I’m a baseball field nerd,” he said.
“For an ideal playing surface, you can’t just throw some dirt on a field. These are sand based athletic fields, like they build golf greens. Under the sod is going to be a seven inch layer of sand. Below that is a series of drain tiles which will take rain water right into pipes and drain it.”
Nothing can be done about rain-outs when precipitation occurs at game time. However, postponing games because of an earlier rain has made the field too wet to use should be less of a problem with the new facility. “The engineer tells us we can get an inch and a half of rain, and it will be gone off the grass in an hour,” Spigner said.
One of the idiosyncrasies of baseball is that every field is unique. The Rich Mountain field will have its own quirk. The measurements are: 400 feet to deep center, 375 in the power alleys, 330 down the right field line and 316 down the left field line.
“Left field is shorter because of a street,” the coach explained. “There will be a 12 foot wall that extends from the foul line to what they call the batter’s eye in center. Then the wall will drop to eight feet.”
Construction has been slowed due to what has become the usual monsoon rains from December to June. “We had eight inches of rain in March in Mena, and nine in April,” Spigner noted, “Last week they only missed one day. You can see it’s coming along. They’re nearly finished doing the rough dirt work. The guys who actually build baseball fields will come next week.”
The facility is planned to be completed in two phases. “Bleachers are not part of Phase 1. A hillside runs down the third base and left field line. We plan on terracing it so people can sit there. The main focus is getting the playing surface as nice as possible,” said the coach. “Everything is still on schedule for our first time to step on the field Aug. 10.”
Seating, lights and some other tasks are parts of Phase 2.
Although it is three months before the first recruits arrive on campus, Spigner will still be busy. “The NCJAA has suspended face to face recruiting until May 15. Hopefully it will be lifted then and we can go back to watching kids practice and hopefully play and have them visit the campus,” he said. “I have not stopped recruiting. I’m still trying to finish this roster and I’m recruiting the 2021 class. I’m still recruiting every day; it never stops.”
One more change in the last year is that an assistant coach has been added. Jeff Burson is joining the Rich Mountain staff.
“For the last three years he’s been the head baseball coach at Smackover. He will be our pitching coach. He reached out to me very shortly after I announced I was taking the job at Rich Mountain,” Spigner said. While at Horatio, Spigner had coached against Burson at Smackover.
“I was very impressed with their pitching and how the players conducted themselves. All the people I asked about him had nothing but great things to say. More than one person told me: ‘You’re not going to outwork him,’ which I take as a personal challenge.”
The team is still months away from playing its first game, but the coach is optimistic. “I feel pretty good about guys we have signed. Recruiting went well, all things considered. I can’t wait for the restrictions to be lifted. I can’t wait to see the guys in August and get started,” he said.
Even so, there are some things he misses about his former post. “I really like what I’m doing. I like the people I’m working for, but I miss the relationships I had built up in Horatio, players, parents, other coaches. I worked for some really good administrators.”