Creighton’s players and coaches know they are losing some talented players off the team that won 45 games and finished the 2011 season in the NCAA tournament.
But as good as Jonas Dufek, Trever Adams and the other Bluejay seniors were on the field, they might have been better off of it.
That’s why what happens next fall in the clubhouse might be as important as anything that transpires on the practice field.
“These seniors have laid a blueprint in how you do things," Creighton coach Ed Servais said. “They grabbed a hold of that locker room and made sure that what took place there was, for the most part, positive. You could sense there was something different about this team last fall.
“I didn’t know how many wins that was going to mean, but I could sense there was something different. That’s why we’ll challenge the junior class to become as good a senior group as this past group was."
It’s always difficult to gauge how much leadership and team chemistry figures into a team’s ultimate success. There are plenty of teams that get along well that, when the game is on the line, can’t catch up to that 90 mph fastball and make that perfect pitch.
But the Bluejays were convinced their success this season was tied as much to their ability to play as one as to sheer physical talent.
“Team chemistry was huge," second baseman Alex Staehely said. “I’ve never been a part of a team like this, where every single guy meshed together. There were no issues throughout the year."
Staehely, a sophomore who hit .286 and drove in 36 runs, will be one of Creighton’s six returning position player starters. The others are first baseman Nick Judkins, third baseman Chance Ross, center fielder Mike Gerber and catchers Scott Thornburg and Anthony Bemboom. Bemboom saw extensive time in left field when he wasn’t catching.
The Bluejays lose their offensive leader in Adams, who hit .387 with 14 homers and 57 RBIs, and shortstop Jimmy Swift, who was second on the team with 42 RBIs. Adams and Swift were first-team All-Missouri Valley selections, while Adams was selected in the 16th round of the amateur draft.
“It’s going to be hard to replace a guy with 14 home runs and 57 RBIs that did it with these new bats," Servais said. “And while Jimmy’s batting average (.274) wasn’t gaudy, he drove in 42 runs. That, and his solid, solid play at shortstop will be a challenge to replace."
Of course, Creighton will bring in some junior-college players and freshmen who the coaching staff believe can contribute. But it’s the returning players, Servais said, that must take the lead in replacing Adams and Swift.
“My hope is that guys like Mike Gerber and Nick and Chance and Scott and Anthony become better players, more offensive players," Servais said. “One guy is not going to replace Trever.
“It’s going to be a matter of guys lifting their games to fill the gaps."
Gerber might be the most intriguing of the returning players. As a freshman, he hit .281 with seven home runs and 23 RBIs while showing excellent defensive skills. But he also struck out 61 times in 167 at-bats.
“One of our goals next year is to cut that in half," Servais said. “If he can put the ball in play 30 more times, I have to believe that’s going to be another eight to 10 hits or more.
“He has as much power potential as any freshman we’ve ever had in this program. At the regional, Mike faced some big arms and didn’t flinch. We have a player in Mike with big potential."
Creighton must replace two-thirds of its weekend rotation in 12-game winner Jonas Dufek and Greg Hellhake, who overcame an up-and-down senior season to pitch well down the stretch. Also gone will be reliever Jack VanLeur, whose 115 career appearances are tied for second in Valley history.
But four other relievers will return, including second-team All-Valley closer Kurt Spomer. Ty Blach, also a second-team all-conference performer, is back to anchor the rotation. Blach won 10 games, and his long-range pro potential is believed to be even greater than that of Dufek, a ninth-round draft pick.
“With Ty as our No. 1 guy, we have a guy we can build around," Servais said. “Mike Gerber is a guy we can build around. The good thing is that we have a good nucleus returning next season."
Servais also guided Creighton teams to regionals in 2005 and 2007. Those teams took greater personnel hits than did this year’s squad, and that showed up in diminished results the next seasons.
Creighton won 48 games in 2005 but slipped to 31 victories in 2006. The Bluejays slipped from 45 wins in 2007 to 37 in 2008.
“We have to keep this thing churning," Servais said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to win 45 games next year, but we can’t slide down to 31. I’m not interested in doing that any more.”
The stakes are now higher with the Bluejays playing home games at TD Ameritrade Park. Creighton played its final 12 regular-season games at the new stadium, as well as hosting the Valley tournament.
Creighton averaged 8,852 for its 12 regular-season games at TD Ameritrade. The Bluejays would like to build on that in their first full season at the stadium next season, but a slippage of play on the field could hurt.
“Is there more pressure than ever on us? Yes," Servais said. “But there also is a newfound excitement around the program."
This season’s seniors are partly responsible for that. In some ways, that could be as much their legacy as the 45 wins or the NCAA tournament berth.
“As seniors, we showed this last fall and throughout the spring how to fight and be leaders," Adams said after the final game of the season. “I think if there was one thing the returning players are going to take from us, that would be it.
“That’s what got us here, and that’s what is going to get them back here next year."
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