The ONU Baseball coaching staff, led by head coach Todd Reid (middle), is set to lead a senior-laden squad in 2013
In 2012, the Olivet Nazarene University baseball team continued a tradition of excellence. In fact, the Tigers accomplished more a year ago than most teams in the program’s 43 year history. Among them, 36 wins, 24 in the CCAC regular season, and an undefeated, 16-0 record at home on Watson Field. Maybe the biggest feat was the Tigers first championship of any kind in five years, winning the CCAC South regular season title over the likes of long time rivals, St. Xavier University and the University of St. Francis. But even three straight wins at the NCCAA World Series wasn’t enough to overcome the disappointment of going two and out in the CCAC playoffs. “We had another great year”, said sixth year head coach, Todd Reid “but we’re not satisfied with how we finished. Our only consolation was that we would return all but two starters and could use our finish as motivation in 2013”.
In Reid’s five seasons at Olivet, the Tigers have won 30 or more games four times (winning 29 in 2009), but have yet to advance past the CCAC tournament. They have missed an overall regular season championship by one game each of the last two seasons, and with that an automatic berth to the NAIA National Tournament. Likewise in CCAC postseason play, the Tigers have not been to the title game since the inception of divisional play and thus have missed a second opportunity for automatic qualification to the national tournament. So while they are proud to have been the only team to have advance to the NCCAA World Series each of the last four years, their goal is to get back to the NAIA postseason with a chance to advance to Lewiston, Idaho for the NAIA World Series; a place they haven’t been since 2003.
To do so in 2013, the Tigers will rely heavily on experience. The Tigers have 10 seniors and could very well start eight in the field and two in their starting pitching rotation. Four-year starter and two-year captain, Adrian Perez (Chicago, Ill.) leads the long list of talented seniors. The switch hitting shortstop carries a career .303 batting average and became the only player to homer from both sides of the plate. The three-year starter also had his best defensive season a year ago, making just 13 errors in 55 games. Joining Perez as captain is another four-year starter, right-handed pitcher, Ben Heller (Whitewater, Wis.). Heller leads all current Tiger pitchers with 18 wins and 181 strikeouts. Like Perez, Heller had his most impressive season a year ago with an 8-4 record, 3.76 earned run average, and 85 strikeouts. He has received significant attention from major league scouts and his coaches believe he’ll be the next to sing a professional contract.
The strong group of seniors also includes first baseman, Ryan Kern (Bloomington, Ill.), who leads all current players with 17 career home runs. Kern led the team in 2012 with 45 runs batted in, including nine in the Tigers 30-1 rout of Calumet College of St. Joseph’s a year ago. Kern is well respected by his coaches and teammates, and who will rely on his leadership on and off the field. Returning as the team’s leadoff hitter and left fielder is Justin Fahy (Fargo, N.D.). Fahy had a disappointing 2012, but Reid and his staff believe the senior will rebound in 2013 with a career year. Fahy amass 26 stolen bases on a team that led the nation in stolen bases per game in 2012 and is a prototypical leadoff hitter. Center fielder Dan Schneider (West Salem, Wis.) was recruited as pitcher, and homered in his first college at-bat late in his freshman year. Reid and his staff began to consider his athletic ability would suit him better as an everyday better. In 2011, Schneider began the transition to outfielder and in 2012 hit .270 with 19 walks and a team-leading 17 hit-by-pitches while playing a solid defensive centerfield. Nick Jones (Bourbonnais , Ill.) returns at second base. Jones is a solid hitter and aggressive baserunner. As a sophomore, Jones made a run at the single season stolen base record, finished just shy with 38. He had a very solid defensive fall and hopes to continue improvement in that part of his game this spring.
In 2011, then sophomore Matt Davenport (Swayzee, Ind.) hit .320 and led the Tigers with 16 doubles. But after a disciplinary suspension in the first half of the 2012 season, Davenport to struggled to regain that form and found himself looking for a fresh start in 2013. The fresh start was granted by the Tigers in more than one way. Davenport began to regain his swing, leading the team again in extra base hits in the fall, and the Tigers moved the senior who had experience in the infield and outfield to a position he had never played: catcher. Davenport will join another senior, Alex Cavender (Momence, Ill.), competing for what looks like the most open of the defensive positions for ONU. Cavender started seven games behind the plate in 2012 and has the only real experience among the Tiger catching staff. The two will look to replace defensive specialist David Mitroff who transferred to Cornerstone University to play his final collegiate season for his father, first-year head baseball coach, David Mitroff, Sr. Rounding out the four-year seniors is Kevin Lasowski (Schererville, Ind.). Lasowski may be the most consistent performer over the last three seasons with impressive list of career stats. The Pitcher/DH has a 15-9 record on the mound with seven career saves. He has played in 162 career games tallying 120 hits and 86 RBI.
As good as the offensive lineup appears, the pitching staff has been the strength of the team since Reid arrived as the Tigers’ new skipper in 2008. As impressive as Elliot Johnson (Reid’s predecessor) teams were on offense, the pitching staff of the current Tigers is equally as dominant. Reid’s aspiration of developing four-year pitchers shows up on the roster and in the stat lines. In 2012, the Tigers finished with a team-earned run average 3.79, finishing among the top 30 in the nation. They ranked even higher in opponent batting average (23rd nationally and first in the CCAC) with a mark of .253. But, where the Tigers have most excelled over the past five years is their ability to command the strike zone. And no one exemplifies their philosophy and results better than Junior Steven Beckham (Mt. Vernon, Ill.), who finished 18th in the nation in walks allowed for the 2012 season.
Beckham has gradually developed into one the Tigers’ top pitchers. In his first season, Beckham appeared in just 21 innings. Early in 2012, the then sophomore earned a spot at the end of the rotation after two solid relief appearances. By midseason, he was dominating hitters and vying for the top spot in the rotation. After the Tigers’ season, Beckham continued to develop, pitching the New York Collegiate League’s Niagara Power to their first ever playoff appearance and was named the league’s Pitcher of the Year.
Rounding out the rotation will likely be fellow Junior Jon Fightmaster (Bourbonnais, Ill.) and senior Paul Griffin (Pekin, Ill.). Fightmaster is another developing strike-thrower who has nine wins in his first two seasons; and Griffin, a second-year pitcher. who is the Tigers’ best at changing speeds. Sophomore Ryan Archer (Molie, Ill.), freshmen Madison Foster (Indianapolis, Ind.) (another two-way player) and Eric Douglass (Indianapolis, Ind.) are the most likely to compete for starts and joining Lasowksi in the bullpen are freshmen right-handers Parker Shelton (Columbus, Ind.) and Garrett Saunders (Seffner, Fla.), as well as rookie left-handers Matt Webber (Kankakee, Ill.) and Joel Woodbridge (Brockton, Mass.).
Not to be left out is a very solid recruiting class with several players who will compete to play as freshman. Out front are infielders Jordan Hayes (St. Charles, Ill.) and Josh Altmann (Homer Glen, Ill.) and outfielders Cody Haver (Valparaiso, Ind.) and Foster. Hayes impressed coaches and teammates in the fall and could be the Tigers best defensive third baseman in a long time. Altmann showed his versatility playing all four infield positions in the fall as looks to have the highest ceiling with a 6-foot-3 frame, strong arm, and solid work ethic. Haver was an immediate eye catcher, but is coming off shoulder surgery after tearing his labrum making a diving catch in a late fall practice. And Foster may the most intriguing after proving he was capable of competing both on the mound and at the plate.
The remainder of the roster shows just how deep this team is. Each is capable of a big impact as early as this season. In the outfield, rookies Caleb Gulledge (Spring Arbor, Mich.) and Trey Ballard (Champaign, Ill.) join second-year player Aaron King (Pekin, Ill.). All have speed and have shown signs of performing at a high level. Joel Yates (Fairview Heights, Ill.),Myles Froese (Heyworth, Ill.) and Travis Hill (Romeoville, Ill.) provide that same kind of depth in the infield. And Seth Tschetter (Plymouth, Mich.) and Stefan Sauder (Morton, Ill.) provide experience and intangibles behind the plate. Sauder stole 13 bases as a pinch runner and appears to be the leading candidate to provide a spark on the bases for the Tigers.
The expectations are high for this team. After consecutive years coming up just short of their ultimate goal, the Tigers are hungry. And with 10 seniors who know this is their last chance at a ring, they will be playing with a sense of urgency. But, with their first games yet to be played, they are only good on paper for now. Time will tell if they can turn their experience and potential into a Championship.