No matter what the year is or who the players are, the goals for Ashland University's baseball team remain the same.
"Our goals are the same every year," said Ashland head coach John Schaly, entering his 20th season guiding the Eagles. "Conference championship is the No. 1 goal, both regular-season and the tournament. And then to get an NCAA bid and a regional championship, then play in the World Series."
Ashland, which was picked to finish third in the 11-team Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in the 2017 preseason coaches' poll, ended 2016 at 33-22 overall, with a share of the GLIAC regular-season title and a spot in the NCAA Division II postseason for the second season in a row and the fourth time this decade.
"I think it's going to be a very competitive league this year," Schaly said. "Grand Valley's going to be good again, Walsh had a great year last year and they return most of their offensive lineup. Wayne State is going to have a good ball club. You're going to have to come to play every weekend, or you're going to struggle."
The Eagles' pitching staff will be new-look, and will have roles defined during the opening games of the season prior to conference play. Without drafted right-hander Brandyn Sittinger and graduated righty Jake Baldwin, as well as another graduated righty, closer Alex Smith, Ashland goes into 2017 without its top two starters and its stopper from a spring ago.
"We've got a couple veterans who have been through the wars," said Schaly, starting with senior left-hander Mike Gentile (2-1, one save, 3.33 earned-run average in 2016) and junior southpaw Derek Baker (3-6, 7.81), and continuing with junior righties Luke Smith (1-4, one save, 5.58) and Pat Carlozzi (3-2, 5.40) and sophomore right-handers Sam Rice (2-2, 3.92) and Chris Slavik (3-2, 8.03).
The newcomers to the pitching staff include junior right-hander Jordan Young and junior lefty Zack Whitehead, both former junior college hurlers, and freshman southpaw Josh Smith. Sophomore righty Ryan Curtis, who didn't allow a run in 4 2/3 varsity innings last spring, will be a full-time pitcher in 2017.
"We're just going to have to play the early season to see the roles," Schaly said.
Behind the plate, the Eagles most likely will be without both senior Adam Vasil (.244 average, four home runs, 22 RBIs last spring) and junior Ryan Lowe (.222, eight RBIs) for the entire season due to injuries, so transfers Jacob Garbarino (sophomore) and Alex Laikos (freshman) and true freshmen Logan Stoldt and Ryan Byrne will look to step into the lineup.
"They're all going to get their chances, and we think they're very talented," said Schaly. "I feel comfortable that we will be solid behind the plate."
The combination of senior Lance Myers and freshman Carson Mittermaier will split time between first base and designated hitter. Myers is coming off a strong first season in the program with a .345 average, 15 doubles, two homers and 39 RBIs.
"Two very solid bats, and they'll both do a good job defensively at first," Schaly said.
One half of Ashland's middle infield will look different, as junior All-American J.P. Sorma moves over from third base to second base. Sorma was the Eagles' top power source in 2016, hitting .381 with 11 doubles, 17 homers and 59 RBIs.
Senior Brad Hartman returns at shortstop following a .255 season with 19 RBIs.
"We feel those two guys together will make a great double-play combination," said Schaly, who added that Hartman may pitch in relief at some point.
A freshman transfer, Evan Lee, will get the first shot at third base.
"He's got a great arm," Schaly said. "He might do some pitching, as well."
In the outfield, Ashland will have junior Greg Ludwig (.351, 10 doubles, seven homers, 36 RBIs) in left field and junior transfer Connor Barleben in right field, giving the Eagles left-handed power in the corner spots. Center field is up for grabs, and the options include senior Carsten Dembeck (.313, five RBIs), sophomore Nic Varda (.429, 11 RBIs) and freshmen Mac Schoenman, Vince Vanata and Michael Rogers.
"Mac Schoenman can fly. He can really run," Schaly said. "We've got some options."
Junior Edmond Pilolli (four stolen bases) might see time in center, along with second base and shortstop.
Ashland will begin the 2017 season on Saturday (Feb. 25) and Sunday (Feb. 26) with four games in Nashville, Tenn., against Trevecca Nazarene and Alderson Broaddus.