FROM CBB NEWS SOURCE
The Milwaukee Panthers had an up-and-down season in 2008, ending with a 25-36 record overall and a fifth-place showing in the Horizon League standings. But, it was the “up” that the season ended on that will be long remembered. Entering the Horizon League Tournament as the No. 5 seed, the Panthers played a special week of baseball, upsetting three different teams on the way to the tournament finale, where they came up just a victory away from their first NCAA Regional since the 2002 season.
With a large majority of the team returning, head coach Scott Doffek is looking to ride that wave of postseason momentum into the new campaign.
“We really got off on the wrong foot in 2008,” Doffek said. “We had some injuries and lost some guys we thought we would have. We struggled throughout but then played some of our best baseball at the end of the season. Our guys really fought hard in the league tournament, but we essentially came up one pitcher short. We have a lot of those guys returning. The way it ended left a bad taste in our mouths, but will serve as motivation to take that next step. I think our guys are really excited and used that as a springboard for 2009.”
Six everyday starters and the entire starting rotation are set to hit the field in 2009, including six different players who earned Horizon League postseason honors last spring.
“The players we have returning on offense will be a big strength,” Doffek said. “Everyone is a year older and mature, so we feel, offensively, we could be pretty good. We can match up so well this year because we can put a left-handed or right-handed batter at every position. I think that will lead to us being a tougher matchup when it comes to league play. At the same time, we have the whole starting pitching staff back. I hope that everyone stays healthy and gains some confidence.”
The team also adds a newcomer class of 14 – the most in recent seasons. Doffek looks to mold the veterans with the new players and sees the numbers not only giving his team much-needed depth, but also as a way to really push the returners – giving UWM that competitive push in practice and games.
“When you have a 34-man roster, bringing in 14 new guys is over a third of the team being brand new, that is a lot of turnover,” Doffek said. “This group brings a lot of potential and we are happy to have all of them here. We lacked depth last year so I think a significant number of the newcomers will be fighting for playing time immediately.”
As noted before, the Panthers will return pitchers who accounted for almost 80 percent of the innings worked last season – a staff that also struck out the most batters since 2000.
“Although we have the whole staff back, it was not as good as we needed it to be,” Doffek said. “They need to prove that they are capable of pitching at a high level and pitching competitive baseball that will win league championships. I think our weakness is that we are not sure what we have. We like what we have seen in practice. We need to see that happen when the lights come on.”
The following is a breakdown of the team by position:
CATCHER: Milwaukee is well-stocked behind the plate and lists five catchers on the roster. One of them, junior Chad Pierce, will be sitting out 2009 after transferring from Arkansas. The coaching staff has moved senior Josh Groves back to catcher full-time after playing in the infield for most of the past two seasons. Groves batted .294 last year with 30 runs batted in and did appear in nine games as a catcher. He was named First Team All-Horizon League as a utility player in 2007.
“We moved Josh Groves back behind the dish which is his natural position and what he was recruited to do,” Doffek said. “Josh will be an every day catcher.”
Junior Shaun Wegner comes off an impressive sophomore campaign that saw him earn Second Team All-Horizon League honors after batting .329 in 50 games, 42 as a catcher. Wegner drove in 20, had a .471 on-base percentage and also threw out 18 runners trying to steal. Junior Dan Buchholz is finally healthy after struggling with injuries the past two years. He hit .314 last season while coming back slowly, appearing in just 24 games. Lastly, senior Ben Long also saw 19 games behind the plate last season.
“Shaun Wegner is returning after a solid sophomore season,” Doffek said. “We feel like we really have some depth there and then throw in Dan Buchholz – who is healthy for the first time since he has been here – into the mix. We look for him to reach his potential and push those guys behind the plate as well. Ben Long also caught quite a bit last season and did a good job as well.”
FIRST BASE: If there is one position that UWM appears to be set in stone at, it would be first base. Senior Shawn Wozniak is set for another monster year after earning second team all-league honors a year ago. His breakthrough campaign included a team-leading .364 average, six home runs and 51 runs batted in. He has already received numerous preseason accolades in 2009, including being named to the Brooks Wallace Award Watch List for national player of the year and a Ping! Honorable Mention Preseason All-American.
“Shawn Wozniak had a bust-out year last year and snuck up on a few people,” Doffek said. “He had the advantage of hitting behind (Jesse) Hart and (Nick) Wichser last season. But, when it comes down to it, the second time through the league last season – when people knew who he was – he was still able to slow the game down and pile up quality at bats. When he does that, he is really in control. There is no reason for Shawn not to be able to build off of that and maintain.”
Long will also get a look at first base, according to Doffek. Long, a second team all-league selection in 2008 who played 31 games as Milwaukee’s designated hitter, can also be an asset in the field. He batted .292, hit six home runs and drove in 44 in his first season in Milwaukee. Doffek thinks his bat has tons of potential and looks forward to him putting up some numbers.
SECOND BASE: A key loss for UWM was Jesse Hart at second base. The four-year starter had a stellar career and will be missed up the middle. Taking over the position will be senior Andy Gerhartz, a sparkplug in the field that spent most of his time at shortstop a year ago. Last season, Gerhartz earned First Team All-Horizon League honors as a utility player, batting .288 and scoring 43 runs while leading the team with 15 steals and 23 hit-by-pitches. Doffek calls him the first pure leadoff hitter that UWM will have since All-American Mike Goetz in 2005.
“Losing Jesse Hart – who was one of the two or three best all-around players in the league last season – is going to leave us huge shoes to fill,” Doffek said. “But, we are going to let Andy Gerhartz move from short to second, where he will be a lot more comfortable. I think he will raise his game to another level. Getting on base was his mantra last season. I mean, 6-7-8 pitch at-bats time after time, makes the pitcher work every at bat. He is one of those players who if he is not hitting well can still be a major part of the game. He is the type of player you love to have and hate to face.”
SHORTSTOP: Gerhartz was the regular starter at shortstop in 2008, so his move to second base will open the door for a new starter at the position in 2009. The leading candidate will be sophomore Cole Kraft, who appeared in 38 games last season, learning the ropes at second base behind Hart. Kraft hit .295, was a threat on the base paths and was very solid defensively.
“We are going to move Cole Kraft over from second base. He came in nursing labrum surgery from the year before and we feel he is finally healthy. This will help us a lot because it allows us to move Andy to second and Cole has shown the ability to play shortstop at a high level,” Doffek said. “I think Cole did a great job last year. We threw him into the fire and he was very competitive.”
THIRD BASE: With Groves behind the plate, the starting spot at third base is open. Doffek will be breaking in a newcomer right away at the hot corner, as freshman Paul Hoenecke will be looking to make an impression after coming off a very successful high school career and being drafted by the Detroit Tigers last year. Hoenecke was named the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel State Player of the Year as a junior and senior.
“We bring on Paul Hoenecke, one of the most prolific offensive prospects we have had in a while,” Doffek said. “I think it will just be pure offense for Paul – we think he will live in the gaps. He should be a doubles-type guy that will grow into his power. We look for Paul to play a significant amount of games as a freshman.”
Another player looking to get on the field at this spot will be junior Wes Munson, who hit .212 in 27 games a year ago.
“It has been a struggle for Wes and he would be one of the first people to tell you that,” Doffek said. “What we need to do is get Wes off on the right foot and get him playing with confidence. If we are able to do that, he is certainly capable of being a major impact player.”
Other newcomers looking to earn playing time will be freshmen Nick Lingvay and Alex Erdmann. Lingvay was an all-state infielder a year ago while earning Southeast Conference Player of the Year honors and Erdmann was also an all-state first-team member who earned player of the year accolades in the Greater Metro Conference.
“Nick Lingvay had a good fall. We feel that even though he is a freshman we will not lose a step putting him out there,” Doffek said. “We look for Nick to be in the lineup fighting for some time this year and to be a mainstay for the next four years. Alex Erdmann came in raw in the fall but is just one of those kids that is a really good athlete. He has all of the tools you want. We like him and think he will be pushing the guys for playing time.”
OUTFIELD: Two graduated seniors started 61 (Nick Wichser) and 52 (Troy Vesling) games in the outfield last season, so Doffek will be looking for starters at the corner positions. Sophomore Doug Dekoning had a nice season as a freshman in 2008, earning Horizon League All-Newcomer status after batting .305 with 31 runs scored and 20 driven in. He heated up as the season progressed, batting .389 from April 9 through the end of the season.
“Doug Dekoning will be our every day centerfielder,” Doffek said. “We are going to give him the opportunity against both righties and lefties this year and see if he can run with it. I think what you saw last year at the end was Doug playing with a lot of confidence and we think there is even another gear in there. We feel like he is a pro-tool guy. His work ethic is very good. For him, it will be a matter of `when’ and not `if’. ”
A nice addition for UWM will be senior Johann Andes, a former JUCO All-American who missed the 2008 season after an academic appeal. Also, Wegner will be looked at in the outfield this year as well.
“Johann caught a tough break last year after losing an academic appeal that was no fault of his own,” Doffek said. “He was a junior college All-American who we think will fight for significant at bats. We thought last year he could come in and bat in the middle of our order but had to sit out. He is a senior leader and he has not even played for us yet. We will be moving Wegner out to the outfield from time to time. Shaun had a good offensive year last year so we expect that to happen again and then we think he will do a nice job in the outfield.”
In addition to those players, a healthy Tim Patzman is finally set to roll and sophomore Sam Sivilotti will also look to find more playing time. Patzman batted .206 in an injury-marred campaign and Sivilotti hit .273 in limited action, but did have four outfield assists in 23 appearances.
“Tim Patzman has really fought injuries. He is capable of big things with his bat. We will see what happens with Tim if we can get him off to a fast start,” Doffek said. “Sam Sivilotti had an outstanding off-season and we think it is all coming together for Sam. He has a real chance to be an everyday guy for us.”
Lastly, junior Nino Guerrero joins the team as a transfer and gives UWM added depth at the position.
“Nino joins from a JUCO where he had a really good sophomore year. He is a kid with very good bat speed. As he learns the D-I game, he will be someone that could play all three outfield spots,” Doffek said.
PITCHING: The Panthers starting rotation remains intact, headed by seniors Andy Hetebrueg and Brad Lusti. Hetebrueg led the Horizon League with 15 starts last season and pitched much better as the season progressed – winning four-straight and five of six at one point. He finished 6-7 with 50 strikeouts in 86.1 innings. Lusti made a nice splash in his first season at UWM, earning Horizon League All-Newcomer honors after going 4-4 with a team-best 4.24 ERA in 17 games. He led the squad in innings with 97.2 and also with 52 strikeouts.
“Andy Hetebrueg finished really strong last year,” Doffek said. “He had a good fall again and has been a leader by example for us all year. Our best pitcher, statistically, was Brad Lusti. Every time out it seemed like he gave us an opportunity to win the game even if he did not have his best stuff. He had a low-four ERA last year and was never really healthy. He is capable of more and we expect to see it.”
In addition to those two, Milwaukee adds another top arm in junior Jeff Gordon, who had to redshirt last season after getting injured at the start.
“We thought Gordon would have a chance to be our number one last year and is coming back healthy,” Doffek said. “He is looking good so we will see what we get out of Jeff. He is really excited. It has been a struggle for him for the past few years and he really deserves it.”
Others who may see a spot in the starting rotation include a pair of JUCO transfers who were teammates last season in juniors Gabe Marshall and Nate Caldwell. Also high on the list is freshman Kyle Schmidt, the team MVP for Madison La Follette in 2008.
“Gabe Marshall is a three-pitch guy who will be fighting for that fourth spot as well as Nate Caldwell,” Doffek said. “We feel like both of those guys will be starting for a spot as well as true freshman Kyle Schmidt. We feel like he has the stuff to compete right away. He is an arm-angle guy with a good breaking ball.”
Sophomore Cuyler Franzke delivered when given an opportunity last season and will look to get that shot again. He went 3-2 with a 5.21 ERA, appearing in 15 games and making six starts. Senior Tim Hoy set career-highs in games (18), innings (55.0) and strikeouts (37) and looks to finish his career on a high note.
“Cuyler is one of those guys that could get starts, work short relief or long relief,” Doffek said. “He was great for us last year. We are hoping to relegate him to one role, but we look for him to build off a really strong freshman campaign. We dropped Tim Hoy down and we hope this is the arm slot he is supposed to be at. He is throwing strikes and we will see what happens. He is really excited about the challenge and wants a chance to throw in every game.”
The team saves leader from 2008, Adam Ferrell, was lost to graduation, so someone will have to step into the closer role. Doffek sees a bullpen-by-committee until someone steps to the front of the line. He is looking to use the first part of the season to define roles on the staff so that everyone knows their role by the time conference play starts.
Seniors Craig Meier and Jordan Herbert will be looked at, as Meier was second on the team in appearances (27) a year ago and did post two saves. Herbert (14 games) battled injuries last season but has the potential to be a lights-out closer. Junior Zach Hoch (nine games) has shown flashes of brilliance but needs to work on his consistency.
“Meier threw a lot of innings last year because we were so shorthanded,” Doffek said. “We look to find a defined role for him and with the added depth will not have to throw him out there as often as we did last season. He was a warrior who said he would do whatever we needed him to do. He was just over-used. After a bit of rest late in the year, he threw very well in the league tournament. Jordan looks to be healthy and has the potential to find a home in that role. Hoch has a power-arm that has all the tools – he just needs to get there. They are great kids to have in the program. Hopefully it all comes together for both of them this season. They are hard-working kids.”
There will be a long list of newcomers on the mound that will really help the Panthers out given the depth they will provide. Junior Lucas Annen and freshmen Greg Blohowiak, Kaleb Engelke, Cameron Amsrud, Jake Long and Eric Meeusen all bring different qualities to the team that Doffek will use in the right situation.
“Annen will be another guy that will be battling for that four/five spot – he is a real competitive guy,” Doffek said. “Blohowiak is a walk-on who came out and pounded the strike zone at tryouts and then came in and was not intimidated at all. Engelke is a lefty that is a good athlete – he is one of the guys that you hate to face and might see some mid-week starts. Amsrud will fight for short innings despite missing time in the fall with injuries. Long and Meeusen will be two guys that we will be able to count on this season. Jake is another guy with a power arm. He has a high ceiling and both have good frames to work with.”
That season will get underway soon, as the Panthers open the 2009 campaign at Arizona State Feb. 20.