Penn State Altoona Baseball 2017 Season Preview

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In many ways, the 2017 season marks the beginning of a new era for Penn State Altoona baseball. The Lions have a new coach, RJ Barnard, who was tabbed to lead the team following the December retirement of Joe Piotti, who managed the Lions for the past 20 years. Additionally, 20 players on the team's 32-man roster are newcomers to the program. With so many new faces and young talent, Barnard and the Lions are optimistic that this season will help to create a strong foundation that can be built upon for years to come.

"20 of our 32 players are freshmen. However, almost all of those 20 guys are four-year players, so these newcomers will be the future of our program," said Barnard, the Lions' first-year interim head coach who was also the team's assistant for each of the past two seasons. "The young guys realize that there is an opportunity for immediate playing time, and because of this, there is a lot of competition going on at many positions, which is always a good thing."

At the plate, the Lions will depend on two returners, junior outfielder Jim Shomberg (Lansdale, PA/Methacton) and sophomore first baseman/outfielder/designated hitter Gavin Roselli (Coatesville, PA/Bishop Shanahan), to anchor the middle of the batting order.

Shomberg was selected as an honorable mention pick to the 2017 Preseason All-American Team after a stellar 2016 campaign in which he finished sixth in the nation in batting average, hitting .463. The left-handed hitting outfielder also earned All-Mideast Region honors last year from the American Baseball Coaches Association and, and he was voted first team All-Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference and was a first team All-Star for the Eastern College Athletic Conference's Division III South Region. In addition to batting average, Shomberg also led the AMCC last spring in on-base percentage (.527) while ranking third in the conference in slugging percentage (.661) and finishing the season with a team-best 18 multi-hit games.

Roselli, a right-handed batter, was the only player on Penn State Altoona's roster last year to appear in every game, starting all 40 of them. He was voted second team All-AMCC as a designated hitter, after he led the Lions and finished 10th in the league in home runs (5) and posted 11 multi-hit games.

"Shomberg will be our only every day starter in the field who is not a freshman, so we will need him to provide leadership both on and off of the field and continue to be a consistent bat in the middle of our order, hitting in the three hole," said Barnard. "Gavin will follow and bat cleanup. He will need to swing it well again this year to assure that teams do not pitch around Shomberg."

Right-handed hitting freshman shortstop Hunter Breon (Boiling Springs, PA/Boiling Springs) is penciled in as the Lions' leadoff hitter, with sophomore outfielder and left-handed bat Sawyer Duffey (Waynesboro, PA/Waynesboro) batting second. Duffey started 25 games for Penn State Altoona last season, hitting .269 while scoring 15 runs and drawing 15 walks. Sophomore middle infielder Austin Anderson (Macungie, PA/Emmaus), freshman middle infielder Peter Jacobs (Dix Hills, NY/Half Hollow Hills West), and freshman third baseman Matt Cody (Mechanicsburg, PA/Mechanicsburg), all right-handed hitters, will see significant time in the lineup spots after Roselli. Anderson started 34 games for Penn State Altoona in 2016, ranking fourth on the team with a .283 batting average, .360 on-base percentage, and 34 hits. Junior right-handed hitting first baseman Chris Michaelis (Albany, NY/Albany) will also see plenty of time in the lineup, after he finished second on the team last season in batting average (.329) and third in on-base percentage (.426).

In the field, Barnard expects his squad to be much-improved from last season, in which the team committed an AMCC-high 101 errors. He sees the team's infield as its defensive strength, with the outfield also possessing the athleticism to develop into a solid defensive unit.

"This is hands down the best defensive infield we have had during my past three years with the program. Breon and Cody are smooth on the left side of the infield, and we have two first basemen who can really pick it," said Barnard. "Our outfield will bring good speed and a lot of depth. With improved defense overall, we should see a drop in the pitching staff's earned run average from last season."

While the Lions' pitching was not helped by its defense at times last season, it was also plagued by injuries and inconsistency. This season, Penn State Altoona has a balance of experience and youth, which it hopes will combine to improve the overall numbers of the staff.

Senior right-handers Mike Marley (Middletown, NJ/Red Bank Catholic) and Jared Dailey (Boalsburg, PA/State College) are the pitching staff's veteran leaders, and each will be expected to provide consistent outings throughout the season. Marley went 3-7 for the Lions last year while starting 10 games, and he ranked third in the AMCC in complete games (6), ninth in strikeouts (40), 11th in innings pitched (58), and 12th in strikeouts per game (6.21). Dailey had his 2016 season cut short due to injury, and he pitched 26 innings and struck out 21 batters while posting a 2-2 record in eight total appearances and four starts.

Freshmen who could see significant time on the mound include left-hander Oliver Dailey (Boalsburg, PA/State College) and righties Zane Leister (Middleburg, PA/Midd-West) and Aaron Sharp (Middleburg, PA/Midd-West).

Penn State Altoona first-year assistant coach Brett Weibley, who helps coordinate the team's pitching staff, has high hopes for the Lions' pitchers.

"It will be an entire staff effort from the pitching department. We are very young with some intriguing arms, such as Oliver Dailey, Zane Leister, and Aaron Sharp, to highlight a few names," Weibley said. "We also have some upperclassmen who will need to step up and log a fair amount of innings early on, particularly Mike Marley and Jared Dailey. That being said, each individual on the staff will be given their role and will be held accountable to do their job."

While the Lions' sights are set high for this season, Barnard wants to pace his largely young roster with realistic benchmarks to help measure the young players' improvement and development. As the players get better, he believes, the program will continue to grow and succeed on a long term basis.

"We have to set obtainable goals for this young squad at the beginning of the season," Barnard stated. "Our first goal is to get back into the AMCC playoffs for the first time since 2014. Secondly, we will look for a significant increase in our win total from last season while continuing to build a strong nucleus for next season, as we will return our entire starting lineup in 2018."

The Lions went 11-29 overall last season, which includes a 4-12 AMCC record. In this year's edition of the AMCC Preseason Coaches Poll, Penn State Altoona was voted to finish in sixth place, which is one spot higher than their seventh place finish last year. Barnard, who manned second base for the Penn State Altoona baseball team from 2006-2009, hopes that this season will be the first of several steps in the right direction for the program.

"As an alum, I feel added pressure and responsibility to get the program back to where we were in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Over the past two years, we have brought in a nucleus of four-year players who we hope will be the guys to help put this program back on the map," said Barnard. "We have worked hard this past month, and we are ready to see the hard work and dedication turn into wins on the diamond. We are ready to continue to progress and mature as a team and as a coaching staff throughout the 2017 season."

Penn State Altoona baseball opens its 2017 schedule on Saturday, February 11 with a 12:00 p.m. doubleheader at non-conference opponent Eastern Mennonite University. After another non-conference twinbill at the University of Mary Washington on Friday, February 24, the Lions embark on their annual trip south to compete in the RussMatt Central Florida Invitational. From Saturday, March 4 through Saturday, March 11, the Lions will play a total of 10 games against six non-conference teams from around the country at several venues in the central Florida region.

The team returns from Florida to host its home opener on Saturday, March 18 at 3:00 p.m. against non-conference Keuka College. Throughout the season, Penn State Altoona will also host games against AMCC opponents Medaille College (April 1), Mount Aloysius College (April 4), defending champion La Roche College (April 26), and Pitt-Bradford (April 29) while also playing home matchups with non-conference schools Saint Vincent College (March 28), Lebanon Valley College (April 11), and Hood College (April 23).

On the road, Penn State Altoona will travel to play AMCC foes Pitt-Greensburg (March 29), D'Youville College (April 8), Hilbert College (April 15), and Penn State Behrend (April 22), as well as non-conference opponents Shenandoah University (March 19), Juniata College (March 21), Gettysburg College (March 22), and Frostburg State University (April 9).