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If last season is any indication, the Lakeland College baseball team is prepared to make some noise in the Northern Athletics Conference this spring.
The Muskies plan to build off their late-season success - the team won its last eight conference games - in hopes of returning to the NAC Tournament for the first time since 2006. Lakeland finished 16-19 overall in 2011, 11-11 in the NAC.
First-year head coach Michael Bachar is excited to get the season underway.
"The guys have started talking about last season's success and want to see how far we can extend that win streak," said Bachar. "We lost some key components from last year's team, but our guys are ready to carry the load."
The Muskies enter the season with just seven upperclassmen on a team of 32 athletes, meaning Lakeland will be looking to the seniors and juniors to lead the way.
"I couldn't ask for a better group of leaders," said Bachar. "These guys have come in with a great work ethic and done an excellent job leading by example. I'm excited to see how the young guys develop with such great leadership."
Pitching remains a strength for Lakeland with the Muskies top three pitchers being upper classmen.
Leading the Muskies' staff is redshirt senior Mike Ruzek. The Manitowoc, Wis., native returns as the team's ace with a 4.15 ERA and a team-high 51 strikeouts, while also pitching a team-best 56.1 innings. The 2011 All-NAC Honorable Mention posted a 2-3 record while appearing in nine games.
Senior Garret Vincetich-Morris will be asked to take a bigger role on the mound this season. The Janesville, Wis., native appeared in just four games last season, posting a 1-2 record with a 5.79 ERA, while striking out 18.
Junior Andy Chitwood (Muscoda, Wis.) looks to improve on his 2011 campaign, which saw him go 3-4 in eight appearances, posting a 4.43 ERA in 44.2 innings with 20 strikeouts.
After the top three, the rotation is less clear, and some sophomores and freshman will be asked to pitch some big innings. Derek Loomans, a sophomore from Brandon, Wis., and freshman Trent Schwalbach (Escanaba, Mich.) will be asked to fill in the four and five spots in the rotation.
Other freshmen will be asked to step up throughout the year, including Austin Pflager (Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.) and Max Kramsky (Milwaukee, Wis.).
In the infield, the Muskies return three players that saw the majority of the playing time last season, led by sophomore Ryan Boettcher, who started every game at shortstop last season. The Bonduel, Wis., native looks to improve his offensive numbers from a year ago and continue his solid defensive play.
Morris and Chitwood will also man the infield, playing third and second respectively. When Morris is on the mound, A.J. Dollinger (Ashwaubenon, Wis.), Ruzek, Alex Christman (Racine, Wis.) and Tim Green (Hager City, Wis.) will be asked to man third base. When Chitwood takes the hill, senior Jess Nickel (Waupun, Wis.) or sophomore Andrew Tague (Racine, Wis.) will play second base.
At first base will be junior Matt Krueger, who saw limited playing time last season. The Medford, Wis., native turned some heads in the fall and has continued his impressive showing in this winter.
"We have a solid infield, no matter who is in the game," said Bachar. "Krueger has really impressed me so far this season. His bat should play well in the middle of the order and his defense has improved tremendously. I'm excited to see what this group can do."
The outfield is young for the Muskies, with freshman Nate Soley (River Falls, Wis.) getting the call in center field after an impressive fall season. "Soley has all the tools to be an outstanding player. He played great in fall ball; he just needs to transfer those skills to the field this spring."
Left field remains an open competition with three sophomores competing for playing time: Tim Kuchenbecker (Brillion, Wis.), Frank Pietrantonio (Kingsford, Mich.) and David Green (Marshfield, Wis.).
In right, Ruzek will start, however, when he's on the mound or in the infield, sophomore Charlie Sparrow (Milwaukee, Wis.) will take his spot. "Sparrow has outstanding speed and a good arm. When he's out there our outfield will be very fast," said Bachar.
Lakeland heads to Fort Myers, Fla., March 9-18, as the Muskies take part in the Gene Cusic Classic. "This will be a learning trip for us," said Bachar. "We should come back over .500, that's a realistic goal for us. I'm excited to see where we are and finally get out of the gym and see what we can do on the field."
The Muskies home opener is Saturday, March 24, against Finlandia University. NAC play starts a week later, March 31, as Lakeland hosts Maranatha Baptist Bible College.