2009 Mercyhurst Season Preview

FROM CBB NEWS SOURCE

Jamie Walczak (Courtesy of Mercyhurst Media Relations)
Jamie Walczak (Courtesy of Mercyhurst Media Relations)

Mercyhurst baseball begins a new era in 2009, entering its first season as a member of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference after a 13-year association with the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. In its final campaign with the GLIAC, the Lakers posted a sixth-place finish at 13-16 en route to a 27-25 overall record.

Less travel and more natural geographic rivalries have the Lakers excited for play in the PSAC’s Western Division, which features Gannon, Slippery Rock, IUP, Lock Haven, Clarion and California.

Looking for their fifth-straight season with 25 or more victories, the Lakers will face tough competition in the PSAC as they attempt to claim one of the eight conference playoff berths awarded, four each to the Western and Eastern Divisions.

The competitive PSAC features Kutztown, West Chester and Shippensburg in the Eastern Division. Kutztown regularly makes the North Atlantic Region championship game while West Chester is ranked No. 15 in the Collegiate Baseball poll. Meanwhile, Shippensburg reached the NCAA II World Series last year defeating West Chester in the regionally title game.

The Lakers are poised to become one of the top teams within the Western Division thanks to eight returning position starters and three pitchers back from last year’s rotation. Mercyhurst should improve upon its finish a year ago when the Lakers went 27-25 overall and posted a sixth-place finish in the GLIAC standings at 13-19.

Headlining the Laker returnees are Jamie Walczak, a second-team all-conference outfielder, and Steve Grife, a second-team all-conference pitcher and Baseball America Pitcher to Watch. Also returning to the lineup are outfielder Trey Bennett and first baseman Jeff Stoll after red-shirting in 2008.

OUTFIELD
The coaching staff agrees that this is probably the most athletic group to dot the 2009 roster.
Walczak will anchor the outfield from his position at center field and will hit at the top of the lineup. One of four senior captains, the speedster is described as a “five-tool” player after hitting .352 (58-165) last year, including nine doubles, a team-best four home runs, 26 RBIs and swiping a team-high 21-of-25 stolen bases (4th – GLIAC). He also could contribute innings on the mound.

Bennett’s addition to the lineup will help provide extra pop to the Laker lineup after he hit .307 (50-163) in 49 games and went 18-for-21 on the base paths in 2007. His added power is expected to help overcome the loss of the team’s RBI leader in Joe Luli.

In addition to Walczak and Bennett, the Lakers return a pair of players in Craig Denman and Greg Turk who gained valuable experience after filling in the holes for a Mercyhurst squad that was riddled with injuries a year ago.

Denman made the transition to outfield after being recruited as a middle infielder and quickly turned heads with his ability to track down the ball. Turk is a lefthander and provides additional power to the lineup with his bat. Last year, the versatile Turk made 39 starts between first base and outfield, and the Lakers will use his versatility in a similar role this season. Freshman Jassial Rivera is the newcomer of the bunch and is solid defensively with good instincts on the bases.

INFIELD
While the outfield relies on its athleticism as its strength, the Laker infield will have plenty of depth as a complement with at least two players at every position.

Senior Stoll returns after taking a medical red-shirt last season. One of four captains, Stoll most likely will bat cleanup and guard the corner at first base. Dan Jergel and John Blike will provide competition for the starting role, with the two also possibly sharing starts at designated hitter. Jergel adds another left-handed bat to the lineup while Blike has been solid in the clutch for the Lakers as he started and played in 41 games last season, connecting 28 times in 130 trips to the plate.

Mercyhurst rounds out a strong right side with two-year starter Adam Gray at second base. An all-league selection in the NYCBL this summer, Gray finished the 2008 Laker campaign with a .277 average (46-176) as the ironman joined Walczak as the only player to start and play in all 52 games for the Lakers. He will also take on an additional role on the mound.

Providing backup at second base is Kenny Walrond, who can play both middle infield positions and could start when Gray takes the mound.

On the left side, Lakers find themselves without shortstop and regional gold-glove winner Dan Betolini and will look to replace him with Jonathan Keppler. The right-handed sophomore makes the switch from second a year ago. He made 45 starts for the Lakers and finished first on the squad in walks (24) and second in runs scored (31) while compiling a .253 average (39-154).

Providing competition for Keppler will be a transfer from Gannon University and all-conference honorable mention honoree Jonathan Dziomba. Offensively, the Lakers need to accommodate his bat in the lineup.

The projected starter at third base is Collegiate Baseball’s Player to Watch Ethan Santora. The Ohio Player of the Year brings another offensive threat to the batting order while his solid defensive skills should anchor the hot corner. Battling Santora for the starting role is another freshman in Thomas Kufel, a versatile player who has the ability to play anywhere in the field.

CATCHERS
The Lakers return all three catchers from last year, with senior Joe Furner and junior Adam Schlessel splitting time. Furner started 29 games last year and posted a perfect fielding percentage while gunning down a team-high five base runners. Schlessel made 22 starts at the dish and was third on the team with 137 putouts as he batted .286 (24-84), the sixth-highest average on the team. Sophomore D.J. Haurin will backup Schlessel and Furner. With a steady fall, is steadily improving and could push for more innings this spring.

PITCHING
After graduating one of the best classes of pitchers to step on the Mercyhurst mound, the Lakers must find a way to replace two all-conference starting pitchers and two all-conference relievers.

Wes Craig and Eric Drobotji provided the starting rotation with 105.2 innings and a 7-7 record. Craig allowed 55 hits in 52.1 innings of work and posted an ERA of 4.57 with 47 strikeouts. Drobotji owned a 3.71 ERA with 45 hits in 53.1 innings as opposing batters hit just .228 against him.

For the relievers, Jim Ludwig leaves Mercyhurst as the career leader in appearances while John Morris is the all-time saves leader.

Leading the way in 2009 will be junior Grife. A junior, Grife is one of the most decorated pitchers in school history. Grife led the team in several pitching categories, and this winter he was rated the number three prospect in Division II by Baseball America. A year ago, Grife totaled a 6-5 record with a team-best 2.50 ERA in 68.1 innings of work. His 11 appearances and seven complete games led the team, as did his 78 strikeouts.

Senior captain John Mang is the veteran of the staff and returns for his fourth straight season in the starting rotation. Mang had a solid season last year, highlighted by a win over Division I NCAA Tournament participant Mount St. Mary’s.

Sophomore Nick Gillung looks to be a rotation regular after a strong freshman campaign. The lefty was 2-0 with a 2.11 ERA and earned a road-win over nationally ranked Grand Valley St. Rounding out the rotation will be Gray and freshman Matthew Jimenez. Gray looks to pick up where he did his rookie season (3-0 record, 1.15 ERA) after injury limited him to two innings last season. Jimenez was All-Western NY in 2008 at the scholastic level and is coming off a strong fall season for the Lakers.

Senior captain Ryan Schreiber will lead the bullpen. He has proved to be a valuable arm in relief over the last few years. Russell Gardner, John Iborg, Abram Rak and Thurman Schaetzle are the other returnees. Schaetzle was a key member of the bullpen last year with his 12 appearances. Iborg was 2-0 before having a season ending injury. Gardner provides a lefty option out of the pen. Rak did not pitch due to injury.

Eight other new comers will bolster the pitching unit. Transfers Scott Knoche, Nick Scheetz, and T.J. Tavender all come from Mercyhurst North East.

Knoche is the hardest thrower and posses an above average slider. Tavender had a solid fall in which he proved he could be a valuable reliever. Scheetz is the lefty of the group and has made great strides since the fall. He could also see some spot starts.

Eric Aschley, Jeremy Cressley, Josh Graham, Matt Kappler, and Sam O’Neill are the rookies of the staff. Aschley has one of the strongest arms on the team and he could be a future closer. Cressley was the player of year in his region scholastically and throws strikes, leading to use as a possible reliever. Graham has a power arm, and one of the best curveballs on the team. Kappler is a crafty lefty who guided his team to the state title as a sophomore in high school. O’Neill had a good fall for the Lakers and could see action out of the pen.