The Ashland University baseball team will officially start a new chapter on Sunday (Feb. 25) when the Eagles travel to Louisville, Ky. to take on Bellarmine in a doubleheader.
The Eagles are looking to rebound this season after a difficult 2017 campaign that saw them watching the GLIAC Tournament from afar. The prior two seasons, the Eagles won at least two games in the NCAA Division II Midwest Regional, including in 2015 when they were a game from reaching the World Series.
This year, there is renewed energy on the squad with the introduction of several transfer players and freshmen looking to make an impact along with many productive returners.
"The guys are working hard. We're really stressing fundamentals this time of year," said AU head coach John Schaly, who is entering his 21st season with the Eagles. "We're just trying to get the reps, build the pitchers' arms up, build everybody's arms up and try to get our hitters as many live at-bats as possible against our pitchers."
Even with the unpredictable northern Ohio late-winter, early-spring weather, the Eagles have been able to get in a decent amount of work outside ahead of their season opener.
"There have been years where the first time we ever got outside was when we played our first game," said Schaly. "We've actually been outside on the turf field three or four days where we could do intrasquad games. That helps."
The Eagles have a couple arms that should help stabilize a rotation that last year compiled a 6.01 ERA. Sophomore right-hander Chance Hitchcock transferred from Vincennes University where he made 10 starts and had a 5.18 ERA. Junior right-hander Devin Peters helped Kankakee Community College win the NJCAA Division II World Series by going 11-1 across 16 appearances with a 2.64 ERA with 83 strikeouts in 92 innings.
After that, Schaly and his staff will mix and match roles on the pitching staff based on matchups, health and performance.
"We have to figure out two more conference starters, which Florida will dictate a lot of that," said Schaly. "Then we have to figure out the bullpen. We're going to try different guys in different roles."
Junior Ryan Curtis, senior Pat Carlozzi, junior Chris Slavik, sophomore Josh Smith, senior Cory Teachout, senior Zack Whitehead and junior Sam Rice all have gained experience in the last couple years and should figure to make an impact on the staff. Junior transfer Daniel Tenayuca and freshmen Josh Stover, Micah Allen and Perry Bewley will also see time on the mound.
"We're going to have a lot of depth with a number of guys who got a lot of experience, along with the new guys coming," said Schaly.
What will help that depth is the GLIAC's new game scheduling format, which will have single games on Friday and Sunday sandwiched around a Saturday doubleheader. In previous years, four-game series were crammed into the two weekend days.
"It's going to help everybody's pitching, which I think will make for better games, especially in the fourth game of the series," Schaly said. "In past years that fourth game people run out of pitching and it can turn into a slugfest."
The defense will also need to help the pitching staff. Last year, the Eagles committed 99 errors, a number that must come down if they are going to have a successful season.
"We're definitely going to be a much-improved defensive team this year," said Schaly. "That's an area we've really stressed. We have to play good defense. I feel very confident with the guys we have that we'll be a good defensive team."
At first base, the Eagles will rotate a few power-hitting bats, who could also see time at designated hitter. Senior Greg Ludwig and sophomore Carson Mittermaier combined for 29 extra-base hits last season, including 12 home runs. Allen, a freshman, led Ashland's fall season in home runs.
The Eagles will have a newcomer at second base in junior transfer Matt Littrell. He was a teammate of Peters at Kankakee and was named the MVP and Defensive Player of the Tournament at the NJCAA Division II World Series. For the season, Littrell hit .383 with 19 doubles, four triples, four home runs and 14 stolen bases.
"He's a top of the order hitter, a guy that puts the ball in play using the whole field," said Schaly. "He's a smart hitter. He brings a good lefty bat to the lineup and he's solid defensively as well."
The Eagles will turn to a pair of players from Lexington, Ohio on the left side of the infield in freshman shortstop Austin Eifrid and sophomore Evan Lee. Allen, sophomore Kevin Browne and junior Alex Niecikowski can also figure into the infield picture.
Sophomore Vince Vanata will return to patrol center field after leading the Eagles in batting average at .377 last season. He also stole 11 bases and racked up 15 doubles.
"He had a great freshman year offensively. He gets on base and he can run," said Schaly. "He has great speed. He's a strong hitter and can drive the ball with some power. He's got a cannon for an arm. He's just a good athlete and he's worked hard to make improvements. We're excited to see what he can do after a great freshman year."
Senior Connor Barleben is expected to see a majority of the time in right field after batting .277 last season with three homers and five doubles. Browne, sophomores Alex Laikos, Michael Rogers and Mac Schoenman and freshmen Dillan Smith and Zach Franz could rotate through the corner outfield positions as well.
The GLIAC has a new look this year with eight teams now in the conference. The league welcomed Davenport and Purdue Northwest this season.
"It's a very good conference top to bottom," Schaly said. "We've got to be ready to play every day. I'm excited to see the new conference with the new schedule format. It's going to be a dog fight to win this league."
The GLIAC journey begins March 23-25 at Donges Field as the Eagles welcome reigning conference champion Northwood for a four-game set.