Hudlow at helm as Mudcats prep for 2021 return

NCMC assistant is summer baseball team's 12th head coach; season to start next Wednesday

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

What, a year ago, was to be veteran organization member Caleb Bounds’ record-tying third season as head coach of the Chillicothe Mudcats summer college-level baseball team instead this summer becomes the first for a long-time friend of Bounds, North Central Missouri College assistant coach Tyler Hudlow.

NCMC teammates nearly a year ago and friends ever since, the Missouri natives – Hudlow from Harrisburg, near Columbia, and Bounds from Savannah – have been in almost-daily contact since February, Hudlow reports, when Bounds had to set aside his plans to school the Fish a third time when he accepted a full-time, year-round coaching position with Illinois’ Rock Valley College.

Having already planned to have Hudlow be his Mudcats assistant, Bounds encouraged team officials to turn the reins over to the Pirates assistant, given their similar stylistic and strategic approach to the summer, wood-bat game, and they agreed.

Comfortably inheriting the roster base Bounds already had arranged through the fall and early winter, Hudlow now is days away from his first game as the 12th head coach in team history.

Following the COVID-19-forced 2020 season cancellation, the Mudcats – only in their 19th season now, rather than their 20th – are slated to host the Clarinda (Iowa) A’s this coming Wednesday evening in a matchup of the MINK League’s two most-senior members.

A roster of about 35 players, a number of whom will be “commuter” pitchers who only are with the club on days they’re scheduled to throw in a game, has been assembled, according to Hudlow and team officials.

The new coach describes himself as “offensively, I’m a very aggressive coach. I love stealing bases, being aggressive on the basepaths.

“The Mudcats this summer will play to those strengths. … The team is built with guys being fast. There’ll also be some guys that have some power.”

As for the moundsmen, Hudlow comments, “We have a lot of guys who have not thrown a lot of college innings because they’re young. I think they’re going to be really willing to throw a lot of innings, which is nice, where I don’t have innings restrictions on guys.”

Avoiding handing out free bases on walks and hit batsmen – a problem which doomed Bounds’ first squad in 2018 to sustain the only losing season in Mudcats’ history – will be a point of emphasis, the new coach underscores.

“As long as they’re throwing strikes, I think we have a solid staff and we have a lot of guys that are willing to do whatever the team needs and go out and compete,” Hudlow shared with the C-T Wednesday.

The missed 2020 season was a disappointment after the 2019 squad had bounced back so well from the previous campaign.

Led by the big bats of MINK League co-Player of the Year Logan Eickhoff, who led the Eastern Illinois University Panthers in batting with about a .430 average this spring and Nolan Metcalf, now a major contributor for the University of Kansas Jayhawks, the Mudcats went 26-16, including a 23-14 league mark.

A number of members of that 2019 team planned to return last summer under Bounds and perhaps as many as eight – all of them pitchers – still will do so this year. In addition, Trae Brownell, a 2018 Fish pitcher, is expected to rejoin the team.

While Eickhoff, who started at seven different positions in 2019 while carving his name into the team’s records book in numerous places, won’t be around, Hudlow says a former NCMC Pirates teammate of Eickhoff’s, outfielder Braedyn Brewer, could make a further name for himself in the Mudcats colors this summer.

“Brewer and Eickhoff were best friends when they were (junior college teammates in 2019) and were key to our lineup when ‘Eick’ was here,” the NCMC assistant notes.

“They’re both special players.”

Specifically of Brewer, who’ll move on to the 4-year college ranks this fall, the Mudcats head coach opines, “Brewer could be a guy that could fill into that (central team role) in a different way. … He’s probably a little bit more of a blend (between offense and defense than Eickhoff).

“He’s maybe a tad slower (Eickhoff ripped a near-team-record seven triples two years ago, including three in the home finale), but he throws better from the outfield. And he has a little more pop. I think he ended up hitting over .400 this spring and .398 his freshman year. I would say he struggled this year a little bit and still hit over .400 in our ‘3’ hole.”

The coach summarized, “He might be as talented as Eickhoff, so I expect huge things out of him.”

It’s also possible the other half of the middle-of-the-order 1-2 punch Eickhoff and Metcalf (.386 batting avg. with 41 runs scored and 35 driven in, 5 home runs, 15 doubles, .465 on-base rate, .589 slugging rate, and 1.054 OPS – all team highs) provided two years ago could be a NCMC player.

Righthanded-hitting catcher Tanner Sears broke the Pirates’ record for runs batted in this spring.

“They were awesome to work with,” praised Hudlow.

As for Hudlow’s own background, after graduation from Harrisburg High School in 2011, he played at NCMC for two years before going on to Fayette’s Central Methodist University to complete his playing career. He reports he mostly played second base on the college level, but also spent some time at third.

Once out of college, where he’d done some youth-team coaching at nearby Columbia, he returned to the community college at Trenton as an assistant to long-time coach Donnie Hillerman six years ago.

For three summers, he and fellow NCMC assistant Ryan Suttenfield led a college-level, wood-bat team in the St. Louis-area’s Lewis and Clark League, winning one league title and being runnerup the other two years.

When former Mudcats pitcher (and career wins leader) Bounds got the team’s head coaching post in 2018, he sought Hudlow out as an assistant, the new coach recounts, but Hudlow already had committed to working that summer with the Perfect Game organization, a national scouting and player development firm which sponsors youth and high school-age teams in summer tournaments and bills itself as the world’s largest baseball  scouting service. He worked with Perfect Game each of the next two years, as well.

Given his association with NCMC at neighboring Trenton, where the Mudcats traditionally play a game each summer and will do so again on June 9, Hudlow says he’s quite well-versed in the team he now leads on the field.

“I’ve always kept a close eye on them,” he shared Wednesday. “… I’ve always wanted to be a part of the Mudcats, being so close to it, but it’s never worked out until this year.”

“I know it’s a solid league,” he continued. “I know the fans are always good. Just here around Trenton, once it was announced (in February) that I was taking over, multiple people came up to me and said they were super-excited for the season to start and that they were excited that I was taking over (as head coach) and they couldn’t wait to come out to a game.”

The MINK League again will have eight teams this summer, but with one departure and one new club.

The Ozark Generals opted to leave the league after more than a decade in it after the 2019 season. Effectively replacing them will be the Peak Prospects team from the Des Moines, Iowa-based Peak Performance baseball academy. The Prospects played a number of contests against league members in 2019.

With the switch, the Sedalia Bombers will revert to the MINK’s South Division with Jefferson City, Nevada and Joplin. The Des Moines Peak Prospects will play in the North with holdovers Chillicothe, St. Joseph and Clarinda.

Each club will play an unbalanced, 40-games league schedule with eight games against each of its fellow division members and four games each against the four clubs in the opposite division.

As has been the case for several years, the top three teams in each division will qualify for league playoffs at the end of the regular season with a 3-games league championship series deciding the 2021 champion. St. Josephs’ Mustangs won the 2019 crown.

In addition to the league games, the Mudcats have single non-league game on tap – their least ever. It is set for a week from today, June 5, at home against the Queen City Crush.