By Jon Gremmels
Herald Sports Editor
---- — CLINTON — Baseball coaches always like strength up the middle on their teams, and Clinton coach Kevin Cunningham says that’s one reason his team has made it to the Iowa state tournament.
The Mississippi Athletic Conference released its all-conference teams in baseball today, and the River Kings’ strength up the middle shows through.
Senior second baseman Cody Collender and senior shortstop Cody Nolan each earned first-team honors; center fielder Ryan Driscoll, a senior, was named to the second team; and sophomore catcher Jake Faur was named honorable mention.
Three other River Kings — sophomore outfielder Evan Jackson, junior third baseman Dustin Caldwell and freshman pitcher Cole Pennock also were honored.
“Coaches always want to be strong up the middle,” Cunningham said. “If you look at all-conference, with Cody, Cody, Ryan and Jake, it’s nice to have that strength.”
Collender was a repeat selection on the first team and earned all-conference honors for the third year in a row. He batted .410 in 18 conference games, tied for the league lead with five home runs and 13 stolen bases, was second in slugging percentage (.738) and finished third with 18 runs batted in.
“I think we all had high expectations for Cody, and he’s met all of the expectations,” Cunningham said. “The big thing I saw was his defense. I thought his defense lagged last year, but he has been solid on offense and defense this year.”
Nolan earned All-MAC honors for the first time. He finished conference play with a .379 batting average and 12 RBIs. He also was 7-of-8 stealing bases.
“Cody Nolan had a great year,” Cunningham said. “He struggled a bit defensively early but really came on and was one of our better clutch hitters. We moved him into the No. 4 hole because he makes a lot of contact. Cody has a very high baseball IQ, reads defenses well and bunts well. Out of a No. 4 hitter, teams don’t expect a good bunter.”
Driscoll and Jackson were second-team picks in the outfield. Jackson batted .381 in the conference with eight RBIs, while Driscoll hit .311 with 15 RBIs.
“I hadn’t really followed (Jackson’s) stats much until I sat down the night before all-conference selections and said, ‘Wow,’ “ Cunningham said. “To me, Ryan Driscoll is the face of Clinton High baseball and is going to be missed.”
“Dustin (and twin brother Alex, a second-team pick last year) are definitely sparks,” Cunningham said. “We refer to those two as bulldogs. They know how to compete and are the two most coachable kids we have.”
Faur and Pennock also earned honorable-mention recognition.
“Cole had good-enough numbers for me to be on the first or second team, but it’s hard for a freshman to jump over those juniors and seniors,” Cunningham said. “Jake is really our future shortstop, but we needed to get his bat on the field.”
Muscatine pitcher Derek Burkamper was named MAC Player of the Year. The University of Nebraska recruit finished 7-1 with a 0.87 ERA and struck out 72 batters, with only nine walks, in 48 1/3 innings pitched in MAC play. He and Collender were the only repeat picks on the first team.
Third baseman Brandon Engler of North Scott and utility player Jacob TeBrake both moved up from the second team last year to the first team this season. The rest of the first team was Justin Hill of Bettendorf and Tommy Dorton of Davenport West on the mound, catcher Matt Albert of Bettendorf, first baseman Jordan Arp of North Scott, utility player Austin Suhr of Pleasant Valley and outfielders Troy Weiman of Davenport Central, Zach Patterson of Burlington, Colin Kreiter of North Scott and Jake Gervase of Davenport Assumption. Muscatine’s Bob Leech was named Coach of the Year.