Baseball season preview: Muskies look to start fresh after frustrating '08 season
Athletics - posted on 3/9/2009
Same expectations around the league. Different result.
That is what third-year head coach Chris Thousand and his Lakeland baseball team are hoping for as they prepare for the 2009 baseball season.
The expectation that his team will finish tied for ninth in the Northern Athletics Conference, as the preseason coaches'
poll indicates, hasn't changed since last year. However, Thousand is encouraged that the result can and will change, one year after the Muskies posted a 9-27 overall record and finished tied for ninth in the NAC with a 6-16 mark.
"Obviously, record-wise, it was frustrating," Thousand said. "We had 17 freshmen on the team out of the 30 guys, so just a little over 50 percent. We had a young group.
"As far as experience, the upperclassmen hadn't had much playing time in years prior, so it was a very inexperienced group overall. They did a ton of learning last year, which, so far, is paying off really well for us in practices this year."
Despite some key losses at a variety of positions, Thousand believes the team has the necessary ingredients for a successful 2009 campaign.
Lakeland returns a handful of seniors, including infielders Travis Chell (Grantsburg) and Alex Grant (Libertyville, Ill.), pitchers Mike Phillips and Jake Van Camp, both Green Bay natives, and outfielder Zach Hilbert (Green Bay).
Thousand cited Phillips, who has been selected as the team's captain, as well as junior Jake Heinemeyer (Shiocton) and sophomore David Novak (Algoma), as players who have embraced leadership roles on the team.
"Phillips is our team leader, just from what he brings to the table every day," Thousand said. "Jacob Heinemeyer has been there before, and he's a captain for the football team as well, so he has those leadership roles. David Novak is a guy who leads by example. He works really hard and tries to get guys to work with him."
On the field, the head coach believes the team will be most successful using the "small-ball" mentality, which means playing error-free defense, pitching well and using tools such as bunting and base running offensively to bring in runs.
Thousand believes the theory will offset the team's inability to bring in runs with the long ball. The Muskies totaled just three team home runs in 2008.
"We see our pitching and defense being the two strengths of the team," Thousand said. "We do a ton of base running every day. We work a lot on bunting and the hit and run, because we have to make up for our lack of power. Pitching and defense are stressed daily."
Heinemeyer, who is penciled in to start at center field, is one of the team's top returning hitters and one of its better base-runners. The junior batted .309 last season, leading the team in at-bats (136), hits (42), RBIs (17), total bases
(57) and stolen bases (13).
"Jacob brings a lot to the table," Thousand said. "Last year he was our leadoff hitter for the majority of the season. He's got good speed, good hands and plays good centerfield for us. This year, we're working with him on taking that next step in being more of a power hitter and more of an RBI guy for us."
Sophomore Jeremy Williams (Zion, Ill.) will also vie for time in center, as well as several other positions.
In left field, freshman Mike Huber (Reedsburg) and sophomore Roberto Flores (Milwaukee) appear to be the front-runners for the spot. Thousand sees a lot of similarities between the two, in that they each are members of the Lakeland football team, have decent arms and are solid defensively.
Freshmen Casey Fox (Germantown) and utility man William Burke (Rockford, Ill.) are also expected to contribute at the position.
In right field, Hilbert, one of the team's four left-handed hitters, will fight for the spot with sophomore Andrew Schartner (Sturgeon Bay). Schartner started 29 games for Lakeland last season, which was second on the team, while Hilbert hit .280 in 19 contests.
"Schartner was our best hitter from fall ball. He had a lot of confidence coming back from the summer, he worked really hard this summer," Thousand said. "Zach Hilbert brings a ton of experience; he's had consistent playing time all four years he's been here. He does all the little things right."
Junior Doug Novak (Algoma) appears to have the advantage at third base. Novak hit .305 with 15 RBIs, and was second on the team with 44 assists last year.
"Last year, Doug played a lot as our No. 3 or 4 hitter almost every game," Thousand said. "He played a lot of positions and has a lot of pop in his bat."
Novak will be backed up by sophomore Jeremy Meier (Sauk City) and freshmen Stephen Kalina (Lake Villa, Ill.) and Garrett Vincetich-Morris (Janesville).
At shortstop, Novak will back up sophomore Brad Young (West Bend), a very strong defensive player who will look to improve his hitting this season. According to Thousand, shortstop is one of the thinnest positions on the team.
Sophomore Ryan Polizzi (Woodstock, Ill.) will aim to start at second base. Polizzi has an above-average arm and hit .343 last season in 10 games played. Alex Grant drew 12 walks, which was second on the team, hit .263 and started 21 contests last season, but is struggling with injuries early in preseason practice, and will likely play a back-up role. Freshman Jess Nickel (Waupun) will also look to contribute at second.
According to Thousand, first base is a question mark. Travis Chell, sophomores Cal Post (Appleton) and Mike Ruzek (Manitowoc), and freshman Erik Kozey (Medford) are the candidates for the job. Chell and Ruzek provide hitting from the left side, while Post struggled with injuries after starting at first base for the first half of last season.
David Novak, Doug Novak's twin brother, is the team's No. 1 catcher so far. Novak hit a robust .365 with 16 RBIs and a .411 on-base percentage in 2008.
"David's a really hard worker and he comes out with a lot to prove," Thousand said. "He has top-notch catching abilities and a great arm."
Junior Eric Hettmann (Denmark) will begin the season as a back-up after being plagued by injuries last year. Junior Brad Chrudimsky (Antigo) and sophomore Ryan Lawrence (Sheboygan) will also battle for time behind the plate.
Consistency is the key for Lakeland's deep pitching staff, according to Thousand.
Ruzek, who may also see time at first base, is one of the Muskies' top returning pitchers. In 2008, Ruzek led Lakeland with 29 strikeouts and tied for the team lead in innings pitched with 38 1/3. Thousand describes Ruzek as a hard thrower with a good strikeout pitch.
The staff's lone left-hander is Jake Van Camp. The senior made eight appearances last season as a junior, and led the staff with six starts.
"Jake has had consistent playing time through the first three years of his career so far," Thousand said. "When Jake takes the mound, you know what you're going to get. He's going to throw strikes and try and keep guys off-balance."
Junior right-hander Lee Chepil (Ladysmith) has three solid pitches, and has worked to fine-tune those after an inconsistent 2008. Chepil made eight appearances last year.
Junior Matt Katzman (Prairie du Sac) and sophomore Bill Miller (Appleton) each look to improve their consistency after making four starts apiece last season.
Phillips, one of two seniors on the staff, posted a respectable 4.05 earned run average in a team-high 10 appearances in 2008.
In addition to Phillips, Thousand will also look to Williams and Meier out of the bullpen in relief situations.
The Muskies will be tested right away, as they face Wooster (Ohio), which is ranked No. 10 in the D3baseball.com Preseason Top 25, in their first game of a seven-day, 12-game spring break trip to Port Charlotte and Fort Myers, Fla. Lakeland will also face in-state rival Carthage, which is receiving votes in the poll, during the season-opening trip.
"The biggest thing that we stress to our team is that the biggest challenge that we'll meet with anyone is ourselves, especially in baseball," Thousand said. "If you do what you're supposed to do on the baseball field, you have a good chance of winning.
"We try not to put any emphasis on which team we're playing, so it's no different if we're playing the Boston Red Sox or a high school team. It's always the same game for us."
The Muskies' conference slate includes games at Wisconsin Lutheran, Maranatha Baptist, Dominican, Aurora and MSOE, and home games against Concordia, Wis., Marian, Edgewood, Concordia Chicago, and preseason favorites Benedictine and Rockford, who are No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the NAC preseason coaches' poll.
Thousand is excited that the league will receive an automatic qualifier in the 2009 NCAA Division III Tournament for the first time in its history.
"I'm excited to see that we finally get an 'AQ' back for baseball," he said. "I think the teams in our conference are very good, and they can do some damage in the post-season. So I'm curious to see how that's going to work out."
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