Baseball eager for start of season
After a second-place finish in the Ohio Valley Conference last season, Southeast baseball is looking to capitalize on its returning experience in their 2019 campaign.
With 1,220 at-bats returning from 2018 compared to the 622 that returned last season from 2017, the amount of experience and chemistry is beyond what the team has had in years.
“Last year we had 21 new players; this year we have 12 new players. So this is a team with a lot more experience and guys returning than a year ago,” Southeast third-year coach Andy Sawyers said. “Our relationships are really good with this group; they really like each other. They’re going to be fun to watch.”
The Redhawks are returning six full-time position starters in junior shortstop Connor Basler, senior third baseman Alex Nielsen, sophomore catcher Wade Stauss, junior outfielder Peyton Faulkner, junior infielder/outfielder Danny Wright and senior outfielder Justin Dirden from a team that went 27-30 overall and 20-10 in the OVC. Senior utility player Devon Wilson also started more than half of the games last season.
This was the Redhawks first losing season since 2013.
The Redhawks are returning two starting pitchers in Logan Spalt and Christian Vick. Spalt started 14 games and went 2-2 with a 6.63 ERA. Vick started 13 games and went 5-5 with a 5.68 ERA.
Among those returning from the bullpen is junior pitcher Nathan Bock, redshirt-junior Chase Hagerty, senior pitchers Aaron Stretch, Daniel Bergtholdt and Wesley Pyles.
Stretch was named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year preseason watchlist, one of 75 Division I relievers to be selected. He made 25 appearances in 2018 and went 2-2 with a 4.15 ERA. Stretch recorded 30 strikeouts in 39 innings with four saves.
“He’s just a guy that does it with competitiveness,” Sawyers said. “He’s a fiery, emotional guy, and he loves to compete, and he’s super tough. If you look at him on the radar gun, he’s not throwing 92 miles an hour, but his heart’s huge and he’s just a real competitive, tough kid.”
Another Redhawk to earn preseason honors was Dirden, who was named to the 2019 NCBWA Division I preseason All-America second-team, as well as the preseason all-OVC team.
Dirden earned first-team all-OVC a season ago as he led the team in home runs (16), RBIs (68), slugging percentage (.665), walks (30) and total bases (141). He ranked second on the team in batting average (.340), runs (46), hits (72) and doubles (19).
“He doesn’t say a lot; he’s going to lead by example,” Sawyers said. “He just goes about his business and plays well. He’s not giving motivational speeches that’s for sure.”
Dirden said he is appreciative of his awards but believes they are a reflection of the team’s overall success.
“We’ve always preached about doing the little things right. If you do the little things right, the big things will take care of themselves,” Dirden said. “There’s a saying that goes ‘You don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to your level of training,’ and I believe with the whole team being able to train and do the little things right those big moments will payoff.”
Southeast lost a few pieces last season, with first baseman Tristen Gagan and pitcher Carlos Vega graduating and Trevor Ezell, who led the Redhawks with a .377 batting average before transferring to Arkansas, the NCAA national champion runner-up in 2018, as a graduate transfer.
Ezell and Gagan were consistently in Southeast’s top three in every major hitting category, along with Dirden.
Vega was the team’s top pitcher and was drafted in the 21st round of the MLB draft by the Chicago Cubs. He led the Redhawks with 2.45 ERA, 85 strikeouts and held opponents to an OVC-best .222 batting average. He appeared in 20 games and finished with an 8-3 record.
Bergtholdt will start on the mound opening weekend for the Redhawks. In 2018 he made 23 appearances with three starts and finished 1-2 with a 4.80 ERA while leading the team in saves with five.
New blood arrived in freshmen pitchers Bryan McNeely, Bryce Grossius, Blake Cisneros and Noah Niznik, catcher Andrew Keck, outfielder Brett Gonzalez, infielder Turner Fritts and redshirt-freshman pitcher Andrew Frank.
Southeast had a few transfers join the team from junior college, including sophomore infielder Tyler Wilber, junior catcher Garrett Stephens and junior outfielders Trent Pobst and Keegan Meyn.
“One JUCO guy that has really played well for us so far is Tyler Wilber, who is going to hit middle of the order, probably three or four, depending on where we hit Dirden,” Sawyers said.
The right-hander previously played at Long Beach City College where he had a .331 batting average and a .407 on-base percentage.
The Redhawks will start off the season in friendly territory, as 12 of their first 13 games are at home.
Matthew Kinney returned to the team as a pitching coach after spending a year in private business. Kinney will be a first-year pitching coach after serving in other capacities with Southeast in 2016.
“We’re going to be a bunch of guys out there that are going to be willing to do anything that it takes,” Dirden said. “We finished second overall [last year] and we still didn’t do those little things right. If we did those little things right, I think we could have been No. 1 and go to a regional, and that’s what we’re expecting this year. If we just grit and grind through it, we’ll be able to pull it off in the end.”
The Redhawks have been picked to finish fifth in the preseason OVC poll.
Southeast opens its season against Western Michigan at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, at Capaha Field.