NEW CONCORD -- After a two-year hiatus from the Ohio Athletic Conference post-season tournament, veteran Muskingum University baseball coach Gregg Thompson is going to rely on the arms of his pitching staff to get the Muskies back into the tourney this spring.
"Pitching is our strength," Thompson pointed out, "and our weakness is our offense. We have to get in the conference championships. We blew a big lead early last year with our inability to make big plays on defense and get timely hits and lost out at the end of the season."
Thompson welcomes back 14 lettermen from a team that finished 18-21 overall and 9-9 in the OAC last season, its second consecutive losing season, after graduation claimed five players including Alex Vaccaro, who hit .369; Todd Spadaro, who threw 64 innings of All-OAC baseball; and Colten Newell, who batted .279.
Heading up the starting mound corps will be lettermen seniors Logan Addison (Claymont) and Matt Free (Buckeye Valley) along with juniors Colten Maxwell (Zanesville) and Alex VanDine (Heath) with the addition of junior transfer Justin Warrington (Watkins Memorial).
Addison was just 1-4 last year but turned in a solid 2.75 ERA; Free was 4-2 with a 3.03 ERA and Maxwell was 4-4 and was a 4.70 ERA. Warrington, a transfer from Division I-AA Ball State, was an All-Ohio performer at Watkins Memorial before heading to college. He will also see some innings at first base.
Also in the hunt to break into the starting rotation are a trio of first-year recruits in freshmen Austin Miller (Zanesville), Jeremy Jenkins and Dylan Davy (Sheridan).
Coming out of the bullpen will be lettermen seniors Michael Congrove (Lancaster) and Pat Johnson (Willard). Others looking to secure some time on the hill include junior pitcher/first baseman Tyler Kilpatrick (Newark), sophomores Alex Edwards (Maysville) and first baseman/pitcher Darin Heatherington (Steubenville) along with freshmen Christian Hertrick, Steve O'Hara, D.J. Taylor and Sam Timmerman.
"Pitching is our strength," the veteran mentor reiterated, "along with our athletic ability. If we shore up the middle of the infield and take care of the baseball, our arms should make us able to compete. We can't afford to walk people and make errors. Especially, early on if we can keep our heads above water, it will play out in the end."
Defensively, at first base will probably be senior letterman Adam Bennett (Newark), who was a part time starter there last year. Warrington could also see some innings at first along with the junior Kilpatrick, sophomore Heatherington and the freshman Jenkins. Freshman Brett Robberts will start somewhere either in right field, first base or back up as catcher.
Junior letterman Will Simpson, a two-year starter, will be at second base with returning junior letterman Zach Siemon at third base where he started a year ago. Freshman Wes Fauver (Jonathan Alder) will be thrust into the starting role at shortstop along with fellow freshman Nate Hunt when he gets healthy.
"Simpson and Siemon are experienced returners," Thompson stated. "We are very experienced on the infield with the exception of the freshman at short stop. He will have to grow up in a hurry. He is a talented player, but can't try to do too much."
Behind the dish handling the catching chores will be three-year starting letterman Matt Connor (Watkins Memorial) with backup from the freshman Robberts or sophomore Dominic Garay (Steubenville). Freshmen Chris Angle and Nate Boston are also vying for a spot on the infield.
"Connor does a nice job of controlling the opponent's run game from behind the plate," Thompson stated.
The outfield will be experienced with senior letterman and three-year starter, last year's leading hitter and All-OAC performer Darren Garrett in left field, junior two-year letterman starter Michael Lynn (Zanesville) in center and senior letterman and two-year starter Nick Raymond in right field. Junior letterman T.J. Howsare, a spot starter last year, could also see some time in the outfield, while junior Kirk Mills along with freshmen Christian Leitenberger, Matt Maxwell (Zanesville) and O'Hara are backing up those positions.
Offensively, the Muskies make contact and put the ball in play, they just don't have the big power hitters of past years.
"There is not a lot of pop offensively," Thompson admits. "We put the ball in play, we just don't have the power hitters. It is a different game with the change in equipment. It has become a gap-to-gap game rather than a home run game. We will play some small ball and run, bunt and move the ball around the field. We have some depth with a lot of freshmen and competition at some spots, but only time will tell about them."
Garrett led the full time starters a year ago with a .340 average, while Howsare in his part time role batted .373. Bennett in a part-time role at first hit .375. Lynn hit at a .315 clip followed by Siemon at .294, Connor .293, Simpson .287 and Raymond with a .276 average.
The OAC will once again be a grueling challenge headed by two-time defending NCAA Division III national champion Marietta. Mount Union returns almost everyone and Heidelberg made a tournament run last year. Baldwin Wallace will once again be strong, but are not eligible for the OAC or post-season tournaments.
The spring trip to Port Charlotte, Florida will give Thompson and his coaching staff of Dominick Winters and Kory Winter a good idea of where the Muskies are at as they open today with Division I Chicago State University, then face Adrian College, which was 37-10 last year and 96-16 over the past four years, twice. They also will play Alvernia University (Pa.), which won 31 games a year ago and Moravian College (Pa.), which had 28 wins a year ago.
"Our southern trip will be brutal," Thompson cautioned. "We might get on the bus on the way home with a different team than we go with, but this is a group I want to travel with. Our arms should keep us in game, but we will know when we come back what we have and what we need to improve on.
"I am optimistic because I like our group," he added. "We are energetic and athletic and will play hard. Are we good enough? We will find out."