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Season Preview: Gallaudet baseball eyes down conference crown

Season Preview: Gallaudet baseball eyes down conference crown

WASHINGTON – Gallaudet University baseball took another step in building a winning program last season when the Bison posted their first winning record since 1976, set a new school mark for wins in a season (25) after it improved on the prior year’s 17-win mark and advanced to the North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) West Division championship game.

In 2013 the Bison aim to claim their first-ever NEAC championship and grab a berth into the NCAA Division III tournament.

Head coach Curtis Pride, last year’s NEAC West Division Coach of the Year, enters his fifth-year at the helm of a program he has built from the ground up. The expectations continue to rise but so does the program’s notoriety as the awards, accolades and media attention showcase this team’s potential. Plus, this will be the first time the Bison play an entire season on the new Hoy Field.

“We have high expectation for this season because we have the majority of the players back. We are more experienced and have greater pitching depth this year,” said Pride. “We have goals to win our conference championship and make the NCAA tournament. We like our chances.”

Gallaudet finished last year with a 25-17 record and a 10-4 mark in conference games. The Bison advanced to the NEAC West Division championship game but lost to Penn St.-Berks, 13-5, in the double elimination tournament.

“We felt we were the better team. We fell short because we ran out of pitching,” said Pride about the team’s postseason performance. “I know a lot of our players were upset [we lost] because we thought last year was our year.”

The Bison hope a new focus on fielding and added depth on the mound will lead the team to unchartered territory this season.

“If we can keep our errors down and with our improved pitching depth there is no doubt in my mind we can win 30 games,” said Pride.

Pitching

Marcus Smith makes a pitch last season The Bison rotation will feature three returners and a new lefthander with lots of depth in the bullpen. Junior Marcus Smith (Baltimore, Md.) was an All-NEAC second team selection last year after he posted a 7-3 record and a 4.16 earned run average (ERA) as he pitched 67 innings and struck out 31 batters in 14 appearances. Pride has tabbed Smith as the ace of the staff and is expecting a great year from him.

Sophomore Brandon Holsworth (Beal City, Mich.) is a 6-foot-4 right-hander who went 5-5 last year in 14 appearances and nine starts. He pitched 64 innings where he struck out a team best 40 batters but also gave up the most runs (50) and posted a 4.78 ERA. Junior Chris Guinn (McLoud, Okla.) has emerged as a starter after his performance as a reliever last year. Guinn, the team’s starting third baseman, will take to the hill where he is embracing his new role on the team. In 22 innings last season he went 3-0 and struck out 20 batters and walked nine.

The new member to the rotation is freshman Ryan Rippy (Tullahoma, Tenn.) a 5-foot-9 lefty, who is a control artist and has a nice feel for his pitches.

When GU’s starters get in trouble Pride will have a plethora of options in the bullpen and when it comes to closing out a game he will have several hard throwers ready to go.

Junior Tyler Crace (Westfield, Ind.) was the team’s closer last season as he recorded five saves and a 0-1 record in 18 appearances. He struck out 15 batters in 34 innings pitched and walked 19. This season Crace will transition to set-up man for senior Jeremy Adams (Glenn Dale, Md.), who is a hard thrower. Adams started three times last season and pitched in six games where he went 2-2 on the mound.

Freshman Chase Magsig (Hudsonville, Mich.) could emerge as the team’s top middle reliever. The 5-foot-10 right-hander is very athletic and had a nice season in the fall on the Bison football team as the kicker.

Sophomore Larry Kohler Jr. (Union City, Calif.) improved a lot last year in his role out of the bullpen. He now has a year under his belt and has worked hard to become a more dependable arm out of the pen. His younger brother Zach Kohler, a freshman, is another middle reliever on the team.  Freshman Hayden Shock (Burke, Va.) is a lefty to give the coaching staff options.

Pitching coach Andre Rabouin has several projects to work with as junior Orion Palmer (Riverside, Calif.) joins the program for the first time. The 6-foot-7 righty was a starting forward on the Gallaudet men’s basketball team and is working back into baseball shape. Sophomore Justin Wiener (Woodbine, Md.) is working his way back from an injury and hopes to help the team later in the season.

Infield

The Bison will have experience at every infield position this season as the Bison try to improve on their fielding percentage and eliminate some of the physical and mental errors that occurred last year.

Junior Casey Hicks (Henderson, Nev.), the glue behind the plate, does a great job handling the pitching staff and is one of the better defensive catchers in the conference. Hicks threw out 14-of-19 base runners last year trying to steal a base (.576 percent). He only had four errors and seven passed balls and made 159 putouts and 25 assists in the field.

“Casey could be the best catcher in the conference,” said Pride. “He is a great defensive catcher. He has really taken on a leadership role this year and is really motivated.”

At the plate, Hicks was the second leading batter with a .393 batting average (42-for-107) in 35 games started. He had eight doubles, three triples and 29 RBI and 24 runs scored. Hicks was an All-NEAC first team honoree last season.

Hicks is backed up by Guinn and freshman Peter LoDuca (Great Neck, N.Y.). It is LoDuca’s bat that will earn him some playing time this season. The left-handed batter brings a nice approach to the dish and knows the strike zone. Pride will filter in several different players at first base including Adams, LoDuca, junior Jeremy Murphy (Owings Mills, Md.) and sophomore Austin McKenzie (Sulphur, Okla.).

Mitchell Bensman and Tommy Barksdale slap high five. Sophomore Mitchell Bensman (Russia, Ohio) started 41 games last season but had his struggles at the plate and in the field where he committed the second most errors on the team. Bensman has placed last year behind him and has shown a great work ethic in the offseason determined to improve his defense and to improve his performance at the plate. Bensman will be spelled by junior JJ Klein (Cincinnati, Ohio) and freshman Brad Stockdill (Charlotte, N.C.). Klein’s bat last season made him a must start as he started 41 games and batted .312 where he scored 27 runs, stole five bases and collected 48 hits, nine doubles, four triples and knocked in 30. Stockdill is a transfer and former Marine who is working his way back into baseball shape.

Senior Tommy Barksdale (Brookeville, Md.), only one of three players to start all 42 games last season, returns at shortstop. The All-NEAC second team honoree batted .351 and slammed four home runs, drove in 17 runs, scored 39 times and collected 52 hits, 17 doubles, one triple and swiped 11 bags from the lead-off position. Barksdale, who has one of the best arms on the team, had 106 assists and 61 putouts in the field but did commit a team-high 36 errors.

“Tommy is a good defensive player but he did make a lot of mental errors last year,” said Pride. “He knows how important it is for him to focus on his fielding and throws.”

Magsig will play shortstop when Barksdale, one of the team captains, sees time in the outfield.

Guinn will anchor third base once more as he made 95 putouts, 48 assists and just seven errors in 42 games started last season. He batted .280 and had two home runs, 28 RBI, eight doubles, three triples and 22 runs. Pride says Guinn is the best defensive third baseman in the NEAC and has improved in all areas of his game. When Guinn takes the mound look for Bensman to shift over to the hot corner.

Outfield

The one consistent thing you will see in Gallaudet’s outfield is junior William Bissell (Brewer, Maine), a D3baseball.com preseason All-American honorable mention, roaming centerfield. Bissell repeated last season as the NEAC West Division Player of the Year and a second straight appearance on the all-conference first team to go with a handful of other all-region honors but missed out on the 2012 All-American team.

Bissell, who started all 42 games, batted .387 (55-for-142) and blasted six home runs, drove in 37 RBI, scored 43 runs, stole a team best 16 bases, had 12 doubles, seven triples and slugged .697 percent at the plate. In the field he posted a .955 fielding percentage as he made 100 putouts, five assists and only had five errors.

“I expect Billy to have a great year. He needs to be more consistent at the plate but his defense is unbelievable. He is one of the best outfielders in the country,” said Pride.

The rest of the outfield will be made up of a combination of Magsig, Klein, Smith, Rippy and Barksdale.

Schedule

Once again the Bison have scheduled some of the toughest teams in the Mid-Atlantic and South regions and will be tested early. Gallaudet begins its season at home on Feb. 23 against Muhlenberg for a doubleheader and will travel to Wesley College the next day. The following weekend the Bison will play host to Valley Forge Christian College and University of Mary Washington to begin the month of March. That is followed by single games against McDaniel and Emerson before taking a trip to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to face No. 9 Salisbury University for two games on March 10. The Bison will play host to a fourth Capital Athletic Conference team in Frostburg State University on March 13 before Spring Break.

GU heads south to Florida from March 17-22 where the Bison will play seven games in six days. The highlight of the trip will be the doubleheader on March 22 against No. 21 Washington & Jefferson.

The Bison return home to host Washington (Md.) College on March 26 and then will entertain No. 8 Christopher Newport University on March 31 to close out the month.

“We have some tough games early on. We need to see where we stand with them [nationally ranked teams],” said Pride. “If we go to the NCAA tournament we need to know what it takes to beat good quality teams. I want to expose my players to good and tough pitching as well.”

The month of April is focused on NEAC play. The Bison hit the road April 6-7 to face Cazenovia College and Keuka College for two games each. GU returns home the following weekend to host Lancaster Bible College and SUNYIT to begin a nine-game homestand. GU will host No. 23 Shenandoah University on April 15 and then close out the home schedule with doubleheaders against Penn St.-Abington and Penn St.-Berks on April 20 and 21, respectively.

The final two doubleheaders are on the road as Gallaudet travels to Penn St.-Harrisburg on April 27 then heads south to St. Mary’s (Md.) College the following day. The conference tournament will run May 3-5.

Summary

The road to a conference championship and a berth into the NCAA tournament won’t come easy for the Bison this season as they face some of the top teams in the nation and will need to go through several tough conference foes to reach their goal.

To help the Bison become mentally and physically tough Coach Pride had the team train with a former Navy SEAL on three damp and cold mornings in January. That experience alone has gone a long way in forming this year’s team.

“This is the best team chemistry I have ever seen from one of my teams,” said Pride. “After we went to Navy SEAL training they have been helping each other out more and have paid attention to the little details. You can definitely see a difference in practice.”

The team is ready to get the 2013 season started and begin their journey towards making their goals come true.

“I love this team. I think this is my best team yet,” said Pride. “Anything short of a championship will be considered a failure.”