Coming off its fourth NCAA Division III Championship appearance in the last six seasons, and returning the majority of the team's core from the 2016 campaign, the Case Western Reserve University baseball team has its sights set on its deepest tournament run yet during the 2017 campaign.
After missing the NCAA Tournament during the 2015 campaign, the Spartans responded with a strong season in 2016, going 26-15, winning 18 of their final 22 regular season games, despite playing the toughest schedule in Division III. CWRU was selected to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Championships, traveling to Spokane, Washington for the regional round, but ultimately falling in back-to-back games to 18th-ranked Whitworth College and third-ranked Trinity University, the eventually NCAA Champions.
"We got to play the best team in the country last year, and it showed us where we need to be, and how good the team is that goes on to win the National Championship," said Head Coach Matt Englander.
With 24 players returning, including nine position players who started at least 32 of the team's 41 games, three pitchers who started at least 10 games, and a pair of relief pitchers who appeared in at least 15 games each, the Spartans appear primed for another strong season under Englander, who is starting his 11th campaign at the squads' helm.
"This is the first year in my career that we've had all of the regular starters back. That's not to say that there aren't some position battles, because there are," said Englander.
As a team, the Spartans batted .287 last season and averaged 6.7 runs scored per game and a UAA-leading 15 home runs. However, the hallmark of the team's offense was an aggressive approaching on the base paths, as CWRU finished the season with a program-record 96 stolen bases, and ranked 15th among NCAA Division III teams with 2.29 stolen bases per game. The Spartans' pitching staff recorded a 4.22 ERA and a .259 opponents' batting average in 2016, including a 3.58 ERA over the team's final 23 regular season games.
The Spartans received votes in both the D3baseball.com and the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper preseason polls.
The Spartans are returning all three starters from their outfield last season, with all three having played over 100 college games for CWRU entering their senior seasons. Center fielder Aaron Cain is coming off an All-UAA Second Team selection in 2016, after batting .326 and leading the squad with 43 runs scored, 11 doubles and four triples, while adding 14 stolen bases on 16 attempts. Right fielder Tony Damiano notched career-highs with three home runs and a team-leading 26 RBIs, while batting .287 in 2016, and left fielder and team co-captain Josh Neal hit .269 with a home run, 17 RBIs and 12 stolen bases.
"We know what we're going to get on the field from those three, and those things are valuable. The off-the-field part is really exceptional from those guys too," said Englander. "They push themselves, they push each other, and they set great examples."
Freshman Noah Mehrle could also see time in the outfield for CWRU in 2017, while sophomore Jacob Pestel and freshmen Samuel Neal and Chris Shorter will provide depth to the Spartans' experienced outfield group.
Case Western Reserve will also be returning all its starters from last year's infield. The group, which consisted of all freshmen and sophomores last season, now enters 2017 with another year of experience under its belt.
"Last year was valuable in a number of ways. Our guys have done a good job understanding that they got a year to play," said Englander. "But, it is more about the attitude the team has - that we accomplished some of our goals, but fell far short of some of our goals too, and the hunger and desire to keep pushing is what is going to allow us to be good or keep us from being good."
Junior Dan Watson, who earned D3baseball.com All-Region Third Team and All-UAA First Team honors as a sophomore designated hitter, will likely see considerable playing time at first base after an outstanding 2016 campaign. Watson led the team with a .359 batting average, four home runs and 26 runs batted in, while his 23 stolen bases were the fourth-most ever in a season by a Spartan. Sophomore Mike Najmowicz started 35 games during his freshman season (including 25 at first base), tying Watson for the team lead with four home runs and adding eight doubles, three triples and 24 RBIs. Freshman Casey McConihe, who is also expected to factor into the Spartans' pitching plans, could see time at first base as well.
In the middle infield, junior Alex Capetillo (.277, 10 doubles) is expected to man second base again after being named to the NCAA West Regional All-Tournament Team last season, and sophomore Rocco Maue will look to hold down shortstop after an outstanding freshman campaign, during which he hit .308 with a home run, 21 RBIs and 14 stolen bases. Junior Danny Souza, a career .281 hitter over 48 games played, will also factor into the middle infield rotation.
Sophomore Jacob Kucia, who started 31 games at third base last season and hit .256, will be back again at the hot corner, with Najmowicz also seeing time at the position. Freshman Peyton Russoniello will provide another option for the Spartans on the infield.
Much like the Spartans' other position players, the catching position features both depth and experience. Senior co-captain Eric Eldred has started 66 games over his career, including 32 behind the plate last season when he batted .245 with 12 RBIs. Sophomore catcher Tyler Wypiszenski proved to be a force at the plate during his freshman season, finishing the year with a .315 batting average, one home run and 21 runs batted in over 24 games played and 18 starts. Sophomore Michael Folz and freshman Cameron Wheeler are expected to add to the Spartans' depth at catcher in 2017.
The Spartans will be returning six pitchers who appeared in at least 10 games last season, including three who made 10 or more starts. Slated to anchor the rotation is senior co-captain Jake Shields, a two-time ABCA All-Mideast Third Team selection, who will begin the year with 18 career wins, six shy of the program record set by former Spartans Jamie Hora (2010-13). Shields matched the school's single-season records for wins last year, going 8-3 with a 3.84 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 75.0 innings of work. Sophomore Mark Gross will aim to build on a solid freshman debut, during which he led all Spartan starters with a 3.53 ERA, going 3-5 with 35 strikeouts over 66.1 innings and 11 starts. Senior Preston Williams will be back after a breakout junior campaign, during which he went 5-1 with a 4.10 ERA over 11 starts and 13 total appearance.
"We expect a lot from our starters, but I'm not sure that expectations matter," said Englander. "I think Jake and Mark give us a really good one-two punch at the top if they're going to be right and continue to grow. We're excited about them, but we have a lot to prove."
Two major bullpen pieces will be back for CWRU as well. Junior southpaw Liam Killingstad was 1-0 with a 1.63 ERA and two saves over 14 relief appearances last season, while junior right-hander Nate Glasser entered 16 games out of the bullpen, going 1-0 with a 2.95 ERA.
"Those two bring the ability to be calm and intense at the same time that you look for in your bullpen," said Englander.
Other experienced options on the mound for the Spartans this season include sophomores Corey Brown (1-1, 4.98 ERA in 2016) and Ben Chapman (1-1 in 2016), junior Ben Murphy (2-1, 5.22 ERA in 2015 and missed all of 2016), and seniors Andrew Rossman (21 career relief appearances) and Sam D'Alessio (did not pitch in 2016). McConihe, Paul Slota and Matthew Speitel highlight a large freshman class of pitchers that also includes Tony Yambor, Samuel Greenberg, Cam Coco and Scott Kutschke.
"We've got some youngsters that are going to help out, and some older guys that are getting ready to make impacts out of the bullpen or starting," said Englander. "We're excited about the pitching staff. We have some depth, and most importantly some tough kids and some talented arms. We think that could be a strength of the team."
Englander will enter the season with a career record of 234-187-2, good for a .556 winning percentage during his 10 previous seasons. The Spartans have experienced the most successful stretch in program history over his last seven seasons at the team's helm, going 197-105-1 (a .652 winning percentage), making the NCAA regionals on four occasions, and winning a pair of UAA Championships. Englander is 11 wins shy of the program record by a head coach, currently held by former Spartan skipper Jerry Seimon.
Englander is assisted by Nick Callahan and Branden Stuckey.
The Spartans will enter the season with one of the most difficult schedules in the country, with 14 games scheduled against opponents ranked in the top-25 of the D3baseball.com Preseason Poll, and another five against squads that received votes. Case Western Reserve will open the season with seven of their first eight games against opponents who are ranked or received votes in the poll, all on the road, including a season-starting three game series at 16th-ranked Shenandoah University on February 25th and 26th.
The Spartans first 19 scheduled games of the season in 2017 are slated to be on the road, including a pair of two-game series against opponents who received votes in Washington and Jefferson (March 4th and 5th) and Johns Hopkins (March 11th).
Starting on Friday, March 24th, the Spartans will begin their newly-formatted University Athletic Association schedule. Unlike previous seasons, where all six UAA teams played eight games each in Sanford, Florida in March for the conference title, the conference championship will now be determined by a round robin, with four games against each of the UAA schools. The Spartans will begin conference play at fourth-ranked Emory in Atlanta, Georgia from March 24th through March 26th.
Case Western Reserve will return to Cleveland for its first home games of the season, welcoming Brandeis to Nobby's Ballpark for a four-game set from March 31st through April 2nd. The Spartans will also have four-game conference series on the road at New York University (April 7th – 9th), and at home against 17th-ranked Washington University (April 14th – 16th) and Chicago (April 22nd-23rd).
The Spartans will then wrap-up their regular season with games against 14th-ranked Wooster (April 25th), 23rd-ranked Marietta (April 30th) and at home against John Carroll (May 2nd).