The Bethany College baseball team enters the 2013 season with high hopes, as six starters in the field and three starting pitchers are back to try to lift the Bison back to the PAC Tournament.
Long-time BC head coach Rick Carver, who is entering his 23rd season at the helm of the Bison, will be backed by a strong coaching staff to handle the largest roster in program history. Former Bison center fielder Tyler Dillinger is in his second year on the bench, while Bill Sizemore, a former #1 pick of the Seattle Mariners and former coach and scout in numerous major league organizations, joins the program for his first season to work with the pitchers.
Bethany alums Jim Taylor, an All-American for BC in 1995, and Max Schimmel are also helping out this season, which started with Bethany being picked to finish sixth in the PAC preseason poll. With the extra competition from the depth and the team's focus to prove the poll wrong, Carver said the preseason practices have been sharp.
"With 41 guys on the roster, making this the largest in program history, it's going to be very competitive," said Carver. "Everyone had a good attitude through the early practices and we weren't real happy with the preseason poll, so that has served as motivation for us."
Looking to carry the leadership roles for Bethany are the three senior captains in Brad Kubis, Zak Kozlowski and Chuck Ziants. With Kozlowski, who missed all of last year because of injury after he had 40 Ks in 44 2/3 innings as a sophomore, back to anchor the pitching staff along with senior Ryan Styche, who threw a team-high 53 innings last year, and sophomore Ryan Meier, who was 5-2 last year to earn Honorable Mention All-PAC honors, the Bison's conference starters are set.
Bethany will also introduce a crew of promising young arms this season in freshmen Tyler Mayo and Joe Hoffman, who are expected to be the fourth and fifth starters, while freshmen C.J. Smith and Joe Giles will team with junior Zac Edmiston and sophomore Dan Petrella as the top set-up men. The middle men in the pen will be freshmen Ryan Bisi and Kenny Gault and the long relievers are set to be sophomore Harrison Rightmyer and junior Jason Swartzmiller. All those arms will be the bridge to the closer Kubis, who holds the school's single-season (12) and career (24) saves records.
"We are very confident in our pitching staff this year, especially with Coach Sizemore's experience and background to help develop the younger arms," said Carver. "With the return of Kozlowski, Meier coming off an all-conference season and Styche, who is a real fighter, we have a strong conference rotation. We also like four young promising arms in Mayo, Hoffman, Smith and Giles, who could be real good once they learn this level. And Kubis is one of the top closers in the country, so we are very confident if we have a lead late."
Handling the Bison pitchers will be a talented but inexperienced collection of catchers. Sophomore Lucas Flaus played in 11 games last year as a freshman and will split time with junior Tanner Werkmann. He has played a variety of positions through his first two years, but slides behind the plate this year after he hit .280 and knocked in four in 25 at-bats a season ago. The catching depth chart is filled by a trio of freshmen backstops who all have shown flashes of promise in Matt Shaffer, Jesse Penatzer and Tyler Toboz.
In addition to being the team's closer, Kubis will also man first base and is expected to be a key cog in the BC offense. He batted .372 and drove in 27 last year to earn Second Team All-PAC and Third Team All-Mideast Region and will enter this year 45 hits shy of breaking the school's all-time hits record. Behind Kubis at first will be freshman Garret LaPiana, Edmiston and freshman Garrett Schneider.
Fellow senior Ziants will come into the year entrenched as the DH following a breakout junior campaign. He led the team with a .376 average a season ago and was also second on the team behind Kubis in on-base percentage (.460). Sophomore Kyle Wales will be the primary back-up with LaPiana in the mix for at-bats as well.
Joining Kubis on the right side of the infield is junior second baseman Dominic Controguerra, who started 26 games there last year and posted a .950 fielding percentage. Sophomore Joel West is the lone returning upperclassman behind Controguerra with freshmen Matt Neverett and junior transfer Matt Anderson in the mix for at-bats as well.
The opening day starter at shortstop will be junior Juls Leto. He batted .366 last year in his first full season as a starter and he also swiped a team-high 12 bags, which earned him Honorable Mention All-PAC last year and Collegiate Baseball Player to Watch status this season with Kubis. Sophomore Jordan Kennedy played in 19 games last season and is back to provide depth, as are junior Jon Pudliner and freshman Casey Jones.
Rounding out the infield at the hot corner will be a sophomore and freshman battling for time. The returner in the mix is Josh Dow, who made 10 appearances on the mound last year but moves to third base. In addition to working out of the bullpen, Bisi has also earned at-bats at third. Junior Jordan Ault will be looked to as the defensive replacement in late innings and freshman Derek Bozic will provide depth.
The outfield will be anchored by sophomore center fielder Derek Miller, who hit .310 as a freshman and led the team with four home runs and 31 RBIs. Sophomore Ethan Tobin, who saw time mostly as a pinch runner last year, is the most experienced player behind Miller and freshmen Haydon Stanley and Jeshmual Miranda will be looking for time.
Flanking Miller in left field will be a platoon of junior Dylan Wassel and sophomore Cory Myers. The lefty Wassel knocked in 15 last season after a strong freshman campaign, while Myers has worked his way into the line-up after seeing limited time as a freshman. Stanley and Tobin are also candidates to slide over to left if necessary. In right field, Bethany will look to the sophomore transfer Petrella as the starter, while freshman Nick Plesce will be his top competition.
The solid mix of returning veterans and talented newcomers is expected to provide the Bison a potent offense, as BC is looking to improve on its .292 average and boost its run production over the six runs per game the team scored last year.
"Our offense should be a main strength as well," said Carver. "We expect to be improved from last year with a balanced attack, as we want to focus on execution and avoiding the double play."
While Carver likes the way his pitching staff and sticks look coming into the new season, there are areas of concern. Atop that list is the team's infield defense, but Carver also says the team has to be ready to play out of the gate with a season-opening series against PAC favorite Washington & Jefferson and the team's new players have to hit the ground running, but he expects his senior captains to have an impact on that.
"We have some areas we need to work on and the main one is our infield defense," said Carver. "Making the routine play is the key to the season and we hope the number of players we have at every spot will provide competition strong enough to keep everyone focused and get the job done. We also have a tough start to the season by playing the W&J to open the year and we're going to have to play very well against a team that is as deep and talented as they are.
"We are still a relatively young team with only four seniors, so another area of concern is waiting for our youth to develop," said Carver. "But that's where we can also lean on one of our strengths, which is the leadership of our captains Kubis, Ziants and Kozlowski. They are providing strong peer leadership and will help the young players adapt to the college game quicker."
For the Bison to return to the postseason and play in the PAC Tournament, Carver will look for a strong defense and the best effort his team can provide every day to get there.
"Our defense will be a big key and we have a goal of fielding .950 for the season," said Carver. "We also want to get in the PAC Tournament and prove the poll wrong. But our main goal going into the season is to just play hard every game and we believe everything else will follow."
After starting the year with the three-game series against W&J March 9-10, the Bison will travel to Fort Pierce, Fla., for its annual spring break trip March 15-22.