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By Bob Kelley, retired RLC Sports Information Director
It is quite possible a Rend Lake College Fan Club was formed years ago on behalf of Warrior Pitcher Craig Sands, long before he learned of his induction into the RLC Sports Hall of Fame as one of three individuals and one team grouped together as the Class of 2013.
Sands already had practiced – very well, thank you – what he was preaching when he headed one of the finest triumvirates in RLC mound annals.
Some of his biggest cheerleaders surely would have to include Fall 1993 Great Rivers Athletic Conference Co-“Most Valuable Player” Bobby Butler, a left-handed strikeout machine who went 5-0 with a 2.09 earned run average and was drafted in the 23rd Round of the MLB Free-Agent Draft by the Boston Red Sox; hard-throwing righty Brian Kern (now Dr. Kern), All-GRAC, also, after going 4-2 and eventually signing with St. Louis University and then the Oakland A’s, and southpaw Chris Holt, who completed every start the previous spring (including a Sectional-clinching 4-1 victory) and that fall, with a low-2.07 ERA prior to returning home to a record-setting career in relief for the University of Cincinnati.
Yet none of that threesome could duplicate the overall Warrior success of third-year Pitching Coach Sands.
Sands (Highland) established Warrior Baseball records for most single-season and career pitching victories (16 and 31, respectively), complete games (16 and 28) and innings pitched (144 and 258). Those credentials erased standards established 11 years prior to his arrival and remain on a pedestal alone to this day . . . especially impressive since he played from 1987-89.
Other 14th Annual RLC Sports Hall of Fame “teammates-to-be” . . .
• Rebecca Harris (Mascoutah) was one of the top two scorers in Women’s Basketball history when she played for the Lady Warriors from 2004-06. She ranked No. 3 in the country when she scored 707 points and averaged 23.6 points-per-game as a sophomore, earning All-America Honorable Mention status before becoming the first Juco recruit in six years at the University of Illinois.
• Brad Weathers (hometown, Benton) was a reliable contributor for winning RLC Basketball Teams, including 20-6 Southern Illinois College Conference frontrunners, who went on to play for McKendree College. But it is as an Alumni Coach he has gained entry into the McKendree Hall of Fame in 1999, the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2005 and now the RLC Hall of Fame. He was “Coach of the Year” following a 32-3 Carlyle Indian Class A State Championship season in 1988-89 and his teams have won 477 games in 23 seasons at Carlyle and the last four at Nashville Community High School.
• A fourth NJCAA National Championship Cross-Country Team in Fall 2006. Do not dismiss another title, following those of past RLC Sports Hall of Fame Inductees representing Fall 2001, Fall 2002 and Fall 2003, as mere formality, however. This one came as a Division I competitor, just three years after the top two NJCAA divisions were combined; i.e., this challenge was even more demanding for a three-time D-II championship program, which settled for third the next two years following consolidation before the D-I breakthrough.
Sands, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound hard-throwing righthander, completed all seven starts with a 6-1 record as a freshman in Fall 1987 and never let up during a sterling career capped by All-GRAC and All-Region XXIV recognition.
He set combined Fall-Spring single-season records as a newcomer with 16 wins (16-6, including two fall losses in relief and 10-3 in the spring) and 16 complete games in 19 starts and the 144 IP. He departed with career marks in the same categories – a 31-11 career record, 28 CG in 37 starts and the workman-like 258 innings.
Coach Paul Evans & Co. captured a Great Rivers Athletic Conference title – 23-8 overall – thanks to Freshman Sands and his 2.83 earned run average. His decisions included a 10-0 blanking of Kaskaskia and a pair of 4-1 verdicts over John A. Logan. Evans called his four-hit, 3-1 win in 10 innings over Lincoln Land that spring (unearned run) “probably the best pitched game I’ve seen here” in his two years as a Pitching Coach and third year as the Head Coach.
An effective breaking pitch and the ability to throw strikes helped Sands to a 3.13 ERA for a squad that finished 69-31-1 overall that first year. His batterymate was Sophomore Chad Stombaugh, a Kansas City Royals draft pick who preceded him into the RLC Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.
As a sophomore, he was 9-2 in the fall for a 24-8 team, 15-5 overall (62-29 team) for first-year Head Coach Jim McGuire. Career statistics include 45 appearances, seven shutouts, a 3.66 ERA and a 200:122 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Sands continued his RLC connection the following two years at Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University), where he played for Head Coach Keith Guttin, a Warrior Assistant Coach in Spring 1982, and Pitching Coach Evans. His three shutouts in Spring 1990 tied a Bears record he still shares. A 1.60 ERA, also his junior season, ranks third-best all-time.
He was named “Most Valuable Player” for both the Bears and the AMCU Conference after posting an 8-2 record in Spring 1990. He was unscored upon in league games, with shutouts against Eastern Illinois, Northern Iowa and Western Illinois. He finished sixth nationally among NCAA Division I ERA leaders, according to Baseball America Magazine.
SMSU joined the rugged Missouri Valley Conference prior to his senior season in 1991, but that did not prevent him from being named “Pitcher of the Week” once. In a doubleheader versus Illinois State, he was called on early in Game One and recorded 15 of 17 outs via strikeouts in a dominating victory; in the nightcap, he was called out of the bullpen again, this time in the last inning, and earned a save.
Before hanging up his baseball uniform, Sands returned to Rend Lake College as an Assistant Coach for one season under McGuire (1991-92) and two seasons with Rich Campbell (1992-94). Those Warrior teams sandwiched a couple of GRAC runner-up showings (12-4 both falls) around a 1993 Sectional championship. Those teams were 46-32, 31-33-1 and 38-33 from 1991-92 through 1993-94.
In addition to the Terrific Trio of Butler-Kern-Holt, his ’93-94 proteges included freshmen Matt Harre (Morehead, KY, State University) and Mike King (Quincy University). The year before that produced four-year recruits Dave MacPherson (University of North Alabama) and Greg Gerland (Cumberland, TN, University).
Sands inherited three other sophomore hurlers who signed with four-year programs after that first year back – John Moulton (University of Missouri), Chris Dumm (U. of Missouri-St. Louis) and Rob Rogers (Georgia College). The Warriors of 1991-92 were led by infielder Jason Books (Texas Tech), who set the single-season stolen base record with 73 and career standards for stolen bases (108) and bases on balls (134).