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Horizon League predicts Wright State

INDIANAPOLIS — For the past six years, the University of Illinois at Chicago has stood atop the Horizon League baseball standings, winning six consecutive regular-season crowns and three League Championships. The 2008 season could be the dawn of a new era, according to the results of the League’s preseason coaches’ poll, released Wednesday (Jan. 30).

Wright State University has been inserted in the top spot of the canvass, with four of the League’s seven dugout bosses predicting the Raiders to win the 2008 loop title. WSU collected 34 points, edging UIC (32, including the other three first-place votes) for the favorite’s role, with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (25) a solid third choice. Butler University (17) drew the fourth position, with Youngstown State University (14), Cleveland State University (13) and League newcomer Valparaiso University (12) rounding out the field.

Wright State returns most of the key components from last year’s squad that finished 36-22 overall. Fourth-year coach Rob Cooper leads the circuit’s most explosive offense, as the Raiders topped the League charts in nearly every major offensive category last season, including batting average (.316), runs (421), hits (647), doubles (152), triples (23), home runs (47) and runs batted in (372).

At the heart of the line-up is junior first baseman Jeremy Hamilton, a member of the USA Collegiate National Team last summer. Hamilton earned First-Team All-League honors in 2007, posting a .374 batting average with nine homers and 62 RBI. He anchors an infield that also includes another First-Team All-League choice in junior shortstop Justin Parker (.379, 5 HR, 38 RBI), while catcher Gerald Ogrinc threw out 43 percent of would-be base-stealers as a freshman last spring. Parker and sophomore Aaron Fields (.239, 0, 14) form the Raiders’ double-play combination after the graduation of 2007 Horizon League Player of the Year Ross Oeder (.408, 8, 36), who led the circuit in runs scored (79), stolen bases (25), on-base percentage (.496) and slugging percentage (.649) at the top of the lineup.

WSU must replace three starting pitchers who combined for 20 victories and 260 innings last year. Senior right-handers Dan Barker (2-1, 5.96 ERA last spring) and Scott Ruthven (1-1, 5.92) will have to provide veteran leadership on the hill, with Barker as the only returner with more than one victory in 2007.

UIC captured the Horizon League championship and won its opening game in NCAA Regional play last spring, but tenth-year coach Mike Dee must replace seven starters from that squad that finished 35-21 overall (21-6 in the League). The group of departed Flames includes the 2007 Horizon League Pitcher of the Year in Zach Peterson (7-4, 3.54 in 109 innings), the Relief Pitcher of the Year in closer David Cales (3-0, 0.74 strikeouts in 36 innings) and the Newcomer of the Year in outfielder Micky Pingree (.321, 4 HR, 47 RBI).

And while junior infielder Jake Carr (.306, 6 HR, 29 RBI) and sophomore outfielder Ty Rubio (.253, 0, 9) will have to play a large role this spring, the biggest change will come on the mound after the loss of all three starters—Peterson to graduation, Ryan Zink to the Major League Baseball draft and Steve Crnkovich as a transfer—as well as Cales. Junior right-hander Adam Worthington (4-1, 6.00) and sophomore right-hander Brad Riegler (1-0, 4.38) are the most experienced hurlers on this year’s staff, pitching 33 and 24 innings, respectively, in 2007.

Carr scored 41 runs and had 17 extra-base hits—including nine doubles and two triples—last spring, and started 49 games for the Flames a year ago while splitting time between first, second and third base. Rubio played in 44 contests as a spot starter, stealing six bases in nine attempts as a freshman.

Milwaukee enters the 2008 campaign as the third pick in the coaches’ preseason poll, duplicating the Panthers’ finish last spring when UWM posted a 25-32 overall ledger for dugout boss Scott Doffek. This year’s group features five returning starters, led by a pair of First-Team All-League honorees in senior second baseman Jesse Hart (.360, 3 HR, 20 RBI) and junior utility player Josh Groves (.396, 1, 29).

Hart rapped out 71 hits and scored 30 runs a year ago, while Groves’ team-best batting average included 21 doubles. He started 34 games, splitting time behind the plate and at first and third base as well as DH, with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage in 156 chances. Groves batted .474 (9-for-19) with eight RBI in the Horizon League Championship. Junior right-hander Jordan Herbert (4-0 with 1 save, 5.70 ERA) and senior right-hander Brandon Duffy (3-4, 1 save, 6.68) lead a Panther pitching staff that also includes junior southpaw Tim Hoy (1-3, 4.34). Milwaukee’s incoming class features junior right-hander Jeff Gordon, who spent two seasons (2005-06) at the University of San Francisco before joining the UWM program.

Butler coach Steve Farley will rely heavily on his cast of experienced pitchers, led by a trio of seniors in right-handers Jon Dages (6-7, 3.40) and Brian Deter (2-4, 7.35) and southpaw Bryan Bokowy (3-6, 4.36). Dages pitched 98 innings with 62 strikeouts a year ago—leading all Horizon League returners in both categories—while Bokowy posted 51 K’s in his 76 innings of work. They anchor a pitching staff that finished second in the League with a 4.78 ERA last spring.

The Bulldogs were fifth among six teams with a .270 team batting average, however, and must replace several key components from that attack. Senior shortstop Joe Pauley (.324, 5 HR, 31 RBI) and junior outfielder Rich Betsch (.310, 2, 17) are the top contributors among the 24 returning letterwinners. Pauley started 54 of the Bulldogs’ 55 games last season, patrolling the middle of the diamond with second baseman Jason Jamerson (.273, 0, 17). Jamerson earned a spot on the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America squad last spring, adding Second-Team All-Horizon League honors after starting 37 games in his debut campaign.

Rich Pasquale takes the reins of the Youngstown State program, attempting to surpass last year’s 19-37 ledger. The Penguins, hosts of this year’s League Championship (May 20-24), hope to duplicate their outcome from the last time the League tournament was played in northeast Ohio, when the 2004 squad captured its lone Horizon League title. For that to happen, YSU will need another strong season from junior outfielder/third baseman John Koehnlein (.434, 0, 33) and senior catcher Erich Diedrich (.362, 8. 42). Koehnlein finished fourth in the nation in batting average, collecting a school-single-season record 108 hits in 2007. He hit safely in 52 of 56 games last season, including each of his final 29 on the way to First-Team All-League honors. Diedrich and senior infielder Josh Page (.317, 0, 25) each were Second-Team selections, with Diedrich posting 22 multi-hit gmes a year ago.

On the mound, senior right-handers Lucas Engle (4-6, 5.24) and Adam Kalafos (4-7, 5.72) provide veteran leadership, with sophomore right-hander Aaron Swenson (3-2, 6.47) rounding out the rotation. Engle logged 91 innings with 56 strikeouts last season, including a pair of complete games.

Cleveland State won four of its final six games in 2007, finishing 14-44 in skipper Kevin Kocks’ first season at the school. To continue that upward trend, Kocks will look to senior infielder Bobby Cash (.272, 1, 25) and junior outfielder Matt Madrid (.242, 6, 28) as the sparks of the Viking offense, giving more support to a pitching staff led by junior lefty Josh Hungerman (2-9, 3.82).

Hungerman finished fourth on the Horizon League charts with that earned-run average, while striking out 61 hitters in 78 innings of work. He posted six quality starts among his 13 outings on the mound, allowing three earned runs or fewer in eight of his first ten. Hungerman also compiled a .278 batting average with two homers and 12 RBI in part-time duty as the Vikings’ designated hitter. Cash logged 17 multi-hit games and stole 11 bases (third-best in the League) as a junior while anchoring the Vikings’ infield. He started all 58 games last spring and has opened 149 contests in the past three seasons. Madrid provided the power in the CSU line-up, tying for ninth place on the final League charts with his six home runs.

League newcomer Valparaiso finished 22-34 in its final season in the Mid-Continent Conference, but lost its top three hitters to graduation. Senior outfielders Jason Brunelli (.298, 4, 18) and Zach Rodeghero (.295, 3, 27) lead the 2008 Crusaders, along with sophomore infielder Josh Wallace (.239, 1, 7) and senior infielder John Giusti (.234 0, 6). Sixth-year senior Elliott Gibbs (2-7, 5.81) and sophomore lefty Ranko Ivetic (2-5, 6.44) anchor coach Tracy Woodson’s pitching staff. Gibbs fanned 40 batters in 53 innings last season, with Ivetic adding 26 K’s in 43 innings in his freshman campaign.

The Horizon League schedule opens March 21, building toward the League Championship on May 20-25 at Eastwood Field in Niles, Ohio. The host school has won three of the last four League Championships, with UIC defending its home field last spring, Wright State capturing the 2006 title in Dayton, Ohio, and YSU winning at Eastwood Field in 2004.

2008 Horizon League Preseason Baseball Poll
(first-place votes in parentheses)
1. Wright State (4) – 34 points
2. UIC (3) – 32 points
3. Milwaukee – 25 points
4. Butler – 17 points
5. Youngstown State – 14 points
6. Cleveland State – 13 points
7. Valparaiso – 12 points

2007 Horizon League Standings
1. UIC – 21- 6 in League, 35-21 overall
2. Wright State – 21- 9 in League, 36-22 overall
3. Milwaukee – 16-14 in League, 25-32 overall
4. Cleveland State – 10-17 in League, 14-44 overall
5. Butler – 10-20 in League, 22-33 overall
6. Youngstown State – 9-21 in League, 19-37 overall
Valparaiso 22-34 overall, joining League in 2008

NOTE: The head coaches vote in this poll. Teams received six points for a first-place vote, five points for a second-place vote, etc. The head coaches were not allowed to vote for their own squads.

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