Ashland University head baseball coach John Schaly isn't one to make excuses.
Schaly, entering his 18th season with the Eagles, saw his team hit with injury after injury after injury in 2014. Following a season in which Ashland went 24-21 overall and played in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament for the 10th time, the 2015 campaign is a chance to start anew.
"At this point and time, we are pretty healthy," said Schaly.
The GLIAC is shifting to divisional play in baseball for the first time in 2015, and Ashland was chosen to win the conference's first-ever South Division title by the league's head coaches.
"It's a different format this year," Schaly said. "In the past, we played everybody, and now we don't play everyone, so it does make things a little different. The conference, in my 18 years here, has significantly improved. If you don't come to play, you're going to be in trouble.
"Our goals are the same as always. Start with a conference championship. That's our No. 1 goal. The goal is to win the conference championship at the tournament, which puts you in the NCAA regionals. The goal there is to win the regional and get back to the World Series, the ultimate being a national championship. It's a process, and we've got a long way to go. We've got the talent here, now it's just putting it together."
The Eagles boast a pitching staff which, if healthy, is one of the deepest Schaly ever has had at Ashland. The team is looking forward to the return to junior Jake Baldwin, the 2013 GLIAC Pitcher of the Year who was limited to 18 innings last year due to injury, as well as the returns of junior Art Warren and redshirt freshman Derek Baker. Baldwin and Warren are right-handed, and Baker is a lefty.
"We're real excited about our staff," Schaly said. "All three are progressing very nicely. Baldwin has really responded very well. He's throwing great right now. Jake and Art will be significant people on the staff, as well as (sophomore) Brandyn Sittinger from Marshall University, who has a great arm."
Sittinger and junior David Kretschmar, a junior college transfer, both are righties, as are Ashland's top two returnees from 2014 – senior Vince Frate (8-5 record, 4.13 earned run average) and junior Alex Smith (7-5, 3.84).
Also in the mix on the mound are junior lefty Matt Kruzel, sophomore righties Mitch Cox (3-2, 6.12) and Cory Teachout (1-1, 9.51) and freshmen Ryan Gusbar and Tom Rolle (left) and Luke Smith and Pat Carlozzi (right).
"We have more arms than we've had in a long time," Schaly said.
Behind the plate will be returning sophomore Adam Vasil, who played in 38 games as a freshman (starting 33) and hitting .340 with four doubles and 12 RBIs.
"For a freshman at the position to step in is very rare," Schaly said.
At first base, junior Mackenzie Hampshire makes the transition back from the outfield. A second-team All-GLIAC choice in 2014, Hampshire hit .354 with nine doubles, four home runs and 42 RBIs.
"He gives you a nice big target to throw to at first, and he's got great hands," said Schaly. "We've got a good anchor there at first base in Mackenzie."
Ashland has a solid double-play combo in seniors Stephen James at second base and Austin Walts at shortstop. James hit .250 with five doubles, three home runs and 16 RBIs and made just six errors in 41 games, while Walts, a second-team Rawlings/ABCA All-Midwest Region and second-team All-GLIAC selection, hit a team-high .384 with 11 doubles, 29 RBIs and 11 stolen bases.
"He (James) had a great year defensively last year," Schaly said. "Austin Walts has been a starter since his freshman year. Great defensive shortstop. Really makes us strong defensively up the middle. With him and Stephen, we feel great about our middle defense."
Junior transfer Blake Bellman also figures in at both second base and designated hitter.
"Between those two guys, we feel very good about that position," said Schaly, who added sophomore Mike Hudec also could be in the mix.
The two outfielders who will see the most time are junior Nick Edwards in center field and senior Kyle Brooks in left field. Edwards led the Eagles in stolen bases last spring with 16, and hit .308 with seven doubles and 20 RBIs, and Brooks was a first-team Daktronics All-Midwest Region choice as a DH last year after hitting .346 with five doubles and 25 RBIs.
"Brooks and Edwards are going to be there," Schaly said.
In right field, the early-season games are going to decide who the starter will be going forward among a group that includes redshirt freshman Sean Pfeifer, sophomore Joey Gonzalez, junior transfer Bobby Colantuono and sophomore Carsten Dembeck.
"We're just going to have to play them and see how they do. We feel that's a good group. They just need experience," said Schaly.
In addition to Bellman, sophomore Steve Mowry also will be up for time as a DH, as well as whomever isn't catching in a particular game.
Schaly is assisted once again this season by hitting coach Garry Rowland, and is joined this spring by a pair of program alums – pitching coach Aaron Hilt and graduate assistant Tyler Gray.
"Garry does a great job with the hitters. We led the league in hitting a year ago," Schaly said. "Aaron's really stepped right in and made a great impact with our pitching staff. Tyler helps with the offensive game, the hitters, as well as the outfielders and our strength program and speed work.
"I'm blessed to have the three guys I do. They're great teachers of the game."
Ashland will begin the 2015 season with three games in West Virginia against Ohio Valley and Charleston on Feb. 21-22.