Western Nebraska Pioneers readying for new season
GERING — With the home opener for the Western Nebraska Pioneers baseball team less than two weeks away, crews are resurfacing the infield to make for a better playing surface.
“One of our concerns last year was the infield dirt was very loose,” said Pioneers owner Chuck Heeman. “Players’ feet would slip when coming around the bases, making it both a health issue and a baseball issue.”
A crew from Golf and Sport Solutions are currently scraping off two inches of dirt from the infield and laying down a combination of crushed brick and clay to make the infield harder.
Jack Weil, athletic field specialist with Golf and Sport Solutions, said the company produces sand materials for golf courses, infield dirt for athletic fields and other sports related applications.
“We’re upgrading the infield mix for this level of play,” Weil said. “The harder material will be safer for the players. We’ll also be rebuilding the pitcher’s mound as part of the work.”
Gering is also installing a new sidewalk along Overland Trail Road behind the ballfield to improve handicap accessibility into the ballpark.
The improvements should be completed in time for the second season opener for the Pioneers as they try to defend their Expedition League championship.
Last year was the inaugural season for the new league, headquartered in Rapid City. The wood bat baseball league gives Division I and II college players the opportunity to play summer baseball and maybe get noticed by pro scouts.
The Pioneers open the 2019 season on the road May 24-25 for a two-game series with the Casper Horseheads. Their home opener is May 28 against a new team in the league, the Fremont Moo.
Action heats up next week as players and second-year Coach Jimmy Turk arrive in Gering to get ready for the season.
An important part of the summer league experience for players is getting involved in the community. Heeman said players will be involved in the summer reading programs at local libraries, baseball clinics and camps for kids and other public events.
“We require our players to get involved in the community,” he said. “It lets the players know the game is more than just baseball. If they get drafted in the pro leagues, they’ll be doing these events all the time.”
With a highly successful inaugural season, the Expedition League is getting more attention from bigger schools around the country. College baseball coaches are more willing to send their players for summer league play.
“We have players coming in from PAC 12 and Big Ten schools,” Heeman said. “We treat our players well, so when we visit larger schools, coaches know about us. The quality of players will just keep improving.”
Luther Wollard, a Pioneer fan favorite from last year, attends the University of New Orleans. He might be returning this spring, but will wait to see if he’s selected in the pro draft in early June.
The Expedition League now has 10 teams and Heeman said that number could increase to 14 by 2020. The latest to announce was the Rapid City Jackalopes, which will begin play next year.
“Having that number of teams helps with travel,” Heeman said. “We want to have enough teams where we’re playing in the region without having to take 12-hour bus trips. It’s fun to be in a league that’s growing.”
The Western Nebraska Pioneers has had a large impact on the local economy. The organization employs about 50 people, both full-time and seasonal. Over the first season, they purchased about 400 hotel rooms for players, umpires and league officials.
“We also had families come here for a week to watch our kids play,” Heeman said. “While they’re here, they’re visiting all our other attractions.”
He added he wants people to come to town, see the new ballpark and then encourage their hometown teams to come here for tournaments.
Last year, the Pioneers had an average attendance of 936, about 94% capacity in their Oregon Trail Park home ballfield. About 30% of fans attended from outside the Scottsbluff-Gering area.
With a league championship under their belt, Heeman expects even larger crowds for the second season.
“It’s that time of year when everything is coming together,” Heeman said. “We have seven games sold out already and we’re sold out of reserve season tickets. We’re blessed with the way this team and this league have taken off.