NEW CONCORD Coming off what Muskingum University head baseball coach Gregg Thompson describes as one of the worst seasons in his 17-year tenure, the Fighting Muskies look to regroup and return to the Ohio Athletic Conference post season tournament after a one-year hiatus.
Thompson, who is assisted by Dominick Winters and Matt Gilmore along with student assistants Derrick Bennett and Bobby Hall, returns three of his top four pitchers from a year ago when the Muskies were 13-24 overall and just 6-12 in conference play while senior Colton Newell (Carrollton) returns at first base to anchor what could prove to be a very young, but talented infield group.
Last year was a very disappointing year which I am trying to put out of my mind, the veteran mentor relates. We had some internal issues and have revamped the roster. Depth cost us last year, but this year we have quality but not a lot of depth. We made a little run at the end of last season, but it was too late.
The three returning starting pitchers are a junior trio of Alex VanDine (Heath), Matt Free (Delaware-Buckeye Valley) and Michael Congrove (Lancaster). Senior Todd Spadaro (Grove City) is expected to move into the starting rotation and pitch the Muskies opener on the Florida trip, while sophomore Colten Maxwell, who played third base last year, will concentrate on pitching and the designated hitter positions. Congrove is expected to give added help from the bullpen along with juniors Logan Addison (Uhrichsville-Claymont), Pat Johnson (Willard) and freshman Lyle Cowgill (Alliance-Marlington).
VanDine worked a team-high 69.1 innings last year and posted an 4.93 ERA with 46 strikeouts to earn a team-best three wins. Free had a pair of wins while limiting left-handed hitters to a .250 batting average. Spadaro made a team-high 18 appearances last spring, holding batters to a .259 batting average, while Congrove picked up a pair of wins with 20 strikeouts. Addison saw action in 13 games limiting hitters to a .244 average with runners on base, while Maxwell pitched in just one game a year ago while primarily playing third base.
Other pitchers on the roster include: seniors Josh Eckard (Newark-Heath) and Joe Jenkins (Lancaster), sophomore Zach Andre (Amanda-Teays Valley), and freshmen Darin Heatherington (Steubenville), who also plays first base, and Ian Underation (Rittman).
Pitching should be one of our strengths, Thompson said. We are not very deep, but we have good quality. We will have to have starters go deep into games and we have to find guys that can give us 3-4-5 innings in relief. I know we will throw strikes, but they will hit it. We will have to play good defense.
On the receiving end of the battery will be sophomore catcher Matt Connor (Pataskala-Watkins Memorial) who started every game last year as a freshman. Connor batted .268 with six doubles and 12 RBI, while Maxwell hit .265 with 30 hits, nine doubles and nine RBI. Backing up Connor will be freshman Dominic Garay (Steubenville).
Newell returns at first to anchor the infield after hitting .285 last year with a team-high six home runs and a team-best 32 RBI. He had 37 hits, including 11 doubles and had 10 games where he produced multiple RBI. He also delivered in the clutch with a team-best 13 two-out RBI and hit .429 with the bases loaded.
He is excellent defensively, Thompson praised. We need a big year from him, but he needs to cut down on his strikeouts. If we can climb on his back and he can carry us it would be great.
At second base will be sophomore Will Simpson (Cincinnati-Clark Montessori) who started there as a freshman and committed just one error in 73 chances and finished strong at the plate batting .264 with six RBI. Around the horn at shortstop will be another sophomore, Dirk Malone (Athens-Alexander) who was the backup to Maxwell at third base a year ago. He will have to make some adjustments in range from the hot corner but has some experience. Rounding out the infield will be yet another sophomore, Zach Siemon (Northfield-Nordonia), at third base. He saw some limited action last season as a backup to Maxwell. Senior Jacob (J.P.) Finnicum (Gallipolis-Galia Academy), who played in 11 games last spring, will be a backup at all infield positions.
Simpson is very solid at second base, Thompson said, and Malone is very athletic with a strong arm and I hope he picks up the play at shortstop quickly. We are going to be very young, but awful athletic. How that athletic ability translates to baseball will be the question. We will have to play fundamentally sound defense and run the bases. We can run, catch and throw, but can we do it all on one play is yet to be seen.
Newell is our one true power hitter, he added, and he must be a leader. The main concerns is untested youth and our ability to score runs on a consistent basis. It could be an interesting year.
Other infield candidates are: junior Adam Bennett (Newark-Licking Valley) at first base/outfield, sophomore Tre DiMarzio (Louisville-St. Thomas Aquinas) or freshmen Nathan Hunt (Heath) and T.J. Silva (St. Clairsville).
The depth comes in the outfield with junior Nick Raymond (Pickerington-Central) expected to start in left, sophomore Michael Lynn (Zanesville) in center and senior Alex Vaccaro (Worthington-Bishop Watterson) in right. The depth comes from juniors Darren Garrett (Goshen) and Bennett, sophomores T.J. Howsare (Uniontown-Lake) and Kirk Mills (Westlake-St. Edwards or freshmen Alex Edwards (Zanesville-Maysville and Brandon Violi (Streetsboro).
Lynn batted .259 with 10 stolen bases and Garrett saw action in 19 games. Raymond played in 18 contests and Howsare was in 16 games with 13 starts, while Vacarro saw time in 13 outings a year ago.
We run extremely well and could play a lot of small ball, Thompson pointed out. With the change in the bats last year we as a coaching staff and as a team didnt adjust well, but have adjusted better now both offensively and defensively.
I still have a lot of questions to get answered, he added. I am excited with our athleticism, but have concerns. Our Florida trip should produce some answers. We want to win down there, but I need to have answers before we come back and get into our season. The schedule in Florida is strong as we are playing four of the eight participants in last years World Series including Moravian College twice who has a senior pitcher, Brandon Close, that is predicted to be one of the Top-10 draft picks in the country this year. He was 10-0 last year with 100 strikeouts and just five walks and an ERA of 1.00.
Following the spring trip to the Snowbird Classic at Port Charlotte, the Muskies return home to open the home season against Penn State-Behrend in a double header on March 17. This will also mark the unveiling of the new facilities at the baseball field which include a press box, rest rooms, concession stand, recruiting room and 42 stadium seats.
I am very excited about the new facility, Thompson said. It will be so much nicer for the parents and fans that attend games.
The OAC looks to be strong again headed by perennial powerhouse Marietta, with eight of nine starters back off a team that won the Division III national championship last spring, in charge. Heidelberg also looks to be a strong contender as will most of the rest of the conference opponents.
It is the best league in the country, Thompson admitted. On any given day anybody in the conference can beat you. I want us to be a tough out and make people beat us.