March 10 - BETHANY, W.Va. – A dismal 2008 season which saw Bison Baseball fall far beneath the program’s normal standards is history and a youthful 2009 squad looks earnestly in anticipation to the challenges that lie ahead for the upcoming season.
“Almost every facet of the program was new last season,” commented Head Coach Rick Carver, who embarks on his 19th season of leading the Bison batsmen. “We started six freshmen, had two new assistant coaches and whatever could go wrong with the pitching staff, did. However, we did play our best baseball late in the season, and I think we learned a lot that should prove to be helpful for 2009.”
A strong recruiting class of 16 new players will make the 2009 team still youthful in age, but Carver hopes the stability of the experiences gained in 2008 will pay dividends. “I think the first place to look is the coaching staff,” Carver noted. “(Hitting) Coach (Duane) Lanzy had very little time to implement his system to our hitters, and now there is a familiarity with his approach. Given his track record, this is a HUGE factor. (Pitching) Coach (Warren) Stowe was also in his first season and it took some time for him to get to know our pitchers. We were decimated with all sorts of problems in our pitching staff last season. This season, it looks like we have some depth to at least provide some quality competition within the staff.”
Toward that end, the Bison mound corps boast the only two seniors on the team, in number one starter Josh Eckelberger (Beaver, Pa.) and closer Scott Fraley (New Salem, Pa./Brownsville). Eckelberger will be joined in the rotation by junior college transfer Robert Erickson (Saugus, Calif./Chaminade College Prep), junior Josh Lawrence (Mather, Pa./Jefferson-Morgan), a converted catcher, and sophomore Mike Muklewicz (Bridgeport, Ohio). Seeing spot starting duty will be freshmen Bryce Patterson (McKeesport, Pa.) and Matt Perkins (Bayside, Calif./McKinleyville). Long relief will be provided from sophomore Mike Kochman (Pittsburgh, Pa./Serra Catholic) and freshman Adam Wohlers (Saugus, Calif./Saugus) from the right side, and freshmen southpaws Ben Donovan (Pittsburgh, Pa./Avonworth) and Joe Sadler (Weirton, W.Va./Weir).
Short relief, a projected strength for the 2009 team, will see single-season appearance record-holder Adam Nyswaner (McDonald, Pa./South Fayette), a sophomore, and freshmen Matt Hartig (McKeesport, Pa.) and Jake Staebler (Smithsburg, Md.) coming in from the left side, with steady sophomore Zach Grayson (McKeesport, Pa./South Allegheny) and freshman T.J. Zarewicz (Pittsburgh, Pa./North Hills) on hand from the right side. Fraley, who was 1-0 with three saves during spring break in 2008, looks to have regained his form, and is slated to close. Should he falter, Zarewicz or side-winding junior Chris Leasure (Stafford, Ohio/Monroe Central) are waiting in the wings.
“I’m not sure what to expect from the pitching staff because so many are unproven,” Carver quipped. “But we have a great deal of arms, including seven from the left side, so we should be balanced and the depth should provide competition. We may not have a complete game all year, but we will demand strikes and we should have enough available arms to match up late in games.”
A potential strength to the 2009 team lies in the Bison outfield, where all three projected starters were named as “Players to Watch” by Collegiate Baseball Magazine. Leasure, a First Team All-PAC selection last year after he led the team last season with eight home runs, 34 RBI and was second in batting average (.359), will man right field and bat clean-up in the Bison batting order. Spelling Leasure will be athletic freshmen Hartig and Nick Irvine (Marlinton, W.Va./Pocahontas County). In center, sophomore Tyler Dillinger (McKeesport, Pa.) returns after batting .326 and leading the Bison in stolen bases a season ago. Hartig will also be the primary back-up here.
In left field, sophomore Mike Pegg (Uniontown, Pa./Laurel Highlands) returns after a freshman campaign that saw him hit .355 while leading the team in triples. Pegg will be asked to provide protection and run support while hitting behind Leasure in the line-up. Spelling Pegg against left-handers will be junior Mark Cummins (Manahawkin, N.J./Southern Regional), with Nyswaner also in the mix for at-bats.
The Bison infield will have to replace gold glove second baseman Anthony Talotta and four-year starting SS JJ Eberhart, who have graduated. At the hot corner, sophomore Matt Nemec (New Brighton, Pa./Riverside) is in a highly contested battle with freshman Anthony Packer (River Vale, N.J./Pascack Valley Regional), who is recovering from an early injury, and Grayson and all three may significant playing time. At shortstop, Fraley looks to be the starter on Opening Day, with freshmen Levi Bender (Buckhannon, W.Va./Buckhannon-Upshur) ready to step in when Fraley heads to the mound to close out games.
At the pivot, sophomore Eric Fudala (Uniontown, Pa./Laurel Highlands) takes over for Talotta, and will be spelled by the agile freshman Chad Stephen (Barnesville, Ohio). At first base, freshman slugger Patterson and hard-charging freshman Nate Tieman (Hilliard, Ohio/Hilliard Darby) are battling for the nod. Behind the plate, freshman standout Zarewicz projects to be the number one backstop, but sophomore Erik Stumpf (Pittsburgh, Pa./Fox Chapel) and freshman Alejandro Texiera (Miami, Fla./Homestead) expect to see time. Stumpf and Patterson are the leading candidates to DH when they aren’t in the field.
“I like the look of our position players,” Carver noted. “In the outfield, Leasure is one of the league’s best, and Dillinger and Pegg have some talent. Consistency out of them will make our line-up potent. The infield has depth, and I believe that competition for playing time will make each of the players better. When you look at all of the sophomores who gained experience last season, and then the addition of some talented and hungry freshmen, this team can become the foundation for getting us back to where we need to be as a program.”
It’s those talented youngsters that has Carver upbeat for the season, although he admits they’ll have to learn quickly, as the early part of the schedule features some very talented teams. Among the initial challenges includes a doubleheader with preseason nationally ranked Thiel just after Bethany returns from their spring break trip to Florida.
“I strongly believe we will be better, but with 24 of the 29 players on the roster playing their first or second year of collegiate ball, we have to be patient while they develop,” said Carver. “The early portion of our schedule is challenging, and the PAC from top to bottom is very strong, but we had an excellent fall season, and I am confident this young team can meet its goals.”
The Bison open the season on March 14 in Fort Pierce, Fla., with a doubleheader against Geneva. BC’s home opener, as well as their first conference games of the year, will come March 24 with the twinbill against Thiel at 1 p.m.