On top of that, Lakeland has had massive turnover due to graduation at every position the last two years except second base and the number one spot in the rotation - and it's the same player - junior Steve Plucinski (Mundelein, IL). Furthermore, projected starting centerfield Paul Daniels (jr., Miami Lakes, FL) is out for the year with a torn ACL he hurt playing linebacker for Lakeland's successful football team (8-2 this year), and returning starting shortstop Gabe Vollmer (jr., Madison, WI) is currently out due to back surgery in November.
Despite this, the Muskies were picked to finish first again in the LMC by the conference coaches by receiving six of a possible seven first place votes after finishing 27-16 last year and 34-16-1 in 2002.
"We don't worry about the prognosticators," said 6th year head coach John Weber. "We just go about the process of working on our game and then let the rest take care of itself."
This year the Muskies will look for a new group of young, talented, hungry ballplayers who want their chance to carry on the program's tradition.
Lakeland will be led by Plucinski, a 2002 Third Team All-American and 2003 First Team All-Region player. "Plu" was also the 2003 LMC Player of the Year and has earned First Team LMC honors both seasons.
Last year Plucinski was a hard luck 4-5 with a 2.55 ERA against Lakeland's top competition after a 9-3 freshman season. He finished second in the nation last season in strike outs per nine innings (12.9) with a whopping 111 punch outs in 77.2 innings pitched. The only player who beat him out, Matt DeSalvo, is the all-time career strikeout leader for Division III and signed a contract with the New York Yankees upon graduation.
Plucinski tied the NCAA Division III strikeout record for one game last season with 22 punch-outs against Edgewood College. Two weeks later he had the seventh highest total in D-III history with 19 against Marian College in the LMC Tournament.
"Steve is in a class of his own and is one of the top hurlers in Division III baseball," said Weber. Plucinski also showed his mettle against Division I opponents when he made the All-Star team this summer in the prestigious Northwood's Collegiate League. He led his team, the Duluth Huskies, in both wins and saves while averaging more than one strikeout per inning.
"I have coached eight pitchers that have been drafted or signed to professional contracts and I think he's better than all of them," said Weber, Lakeland's all-time winningest baseball coach.
Shane Hansen (jr., Ripon, WI) is another top returner after having a breakout season in 2003 when he was a Third Team All Region performer and a First Team All-LMC selection. Hansen expects to have another big year after hitting .364 with 5 HR's, 33 RBI, 17 2B's, 38 runs and 51 hits in 38 games last season.
"Shane brings a formidable bat to the middle of the order," said Weber. "He's worked very hard in the off-season and we expect that to pay big dividends."
The only other returning starter was Vollmer at shortstop - who will be out at least until early March with his back injury. Vollmer hit .429 last year after winning the starting job mid-way through the season and was 6 of 7 in stolen bases. Vollmer hurt his back working this past summer and tried to play soccer in the fall (he is one of Lakeland's top soccer players) but the injury wouldn't come around. He finally had the surgery at the end of November and is currently rehabbing his back on a daily basis.
But the Muskies don't expect to have a setback up the middle due to the presence of senior Mike Bachar (sr., Morton Community College, IL). Bachar actually had the starting job last year briefly before Vollmer took advantage of his opportunity. Last year Bachar hit .262 in 42 at bats.
"We actually recruited Mike to be our shortstop his junior year but he got out-played by Vollmer and Jon Bintner (jr. Escanaba, MI)," said Weber. "This year he came out with something to prove and he's done it. He's athletic, has a strong arm, and has a passion for the game."
Bintner meanwhile will handle the utility role in the infield and will see lot's of action at second, especially when Plucinski is on the mound. Bintner hit .250 last year in 52 at bats while Plucinski hit a disappointing .267 with eight doubles, 18 RBI and 18 BB's in 105 at bats.
"JB is a winner," said Weber. "He makes the plays defensively and is a smart player who can play anywhere for us, including pitcher. Steve is a great athlete as well who could play many roles for us when he's not pitching. He can be a great hitter if he wants to."
Rounding out the infield is the hot competition at first base. Lakeland will be looking to freshman Tyler Fuhrman (Middleton, WI), junior Brian Swanson (Madison Tech CC, Antigo, WI), junior Justin Petrack (Omro, WI) and possibly junior Mike Gappa (Greenfield, WI). They will look to replace the steady production and brilliant defensive play of Aaron Gustman (Kaukauna, WI, .260, 1 HR, 20 RBI, 6 SB's), a 2003 graduate.
"It will be interesting to see how this position plays out," said Weber. "We need some corner production from one or two of those guys and time will tell who steps up."
Despite the loss of some top-notch catchers over the last two years, catching remains an area of strength for Lakeland. Gappa and sophomores Matt Andrews (Appleton, WI) and Nick Steudel (Hortonville, WI) will fight for playing time.
"I have confidence in all three in both their defensive and offensive game," said Weber. They'll carry on the tradition that graduates Justin Wolter (Kaukauna), Matt Frelich (Green Bay) and Jake Klossner (Punta Gorda, FL) have brought to that position over the last five years."
Gappa hit .409 in 22 at bats last season with 1 HR, 2 2B's and a stolen base. Steudel had a perfect on base percentage of 1.000 with 2 hits, a walk and a hit-by-pitch in his four plate appearance last season, while Andrews was 1 for 2.
The outfield is another area of complete change for the Muskies as they lost three All-LMC performers to graduation in Tadd Russell (Menominee, MI, LF, .340, 4 HR's, 9 2B's, 42 RBI, 10 SB's), Mike Stoeckigt (Cleveland, WI, CF, .316, 3 HR's, 3 3B's, 10 2B's, 25 RBI and 25 SB's), and Ryan Govek (Wausau, WI, RF, .283, 4 HR's, 12 2B's, 30 RBI, 10 SB's 29 BB's).
Weber will look to several performers to make an immediate impact including Mitch Heinemeyer (so., Shiocton, WI), Tyler Schmidt (so., Hartford, WI), Jon Aerts (jr., Wrightstown, WI), Levi O'Kimosh (fr., Shawano, WI), and Matt Cook (so., St. Francis, WI).
Heinemeyer brings experience as he was a part-time starter last season and hit .333 with 2 HR's and 11 RBI's in 51 at bats. Mitch is the nephew of a former legendary Muskie, Bo Heinemeyer (Shiocton, WI), who was a three-year starter in right field and was the #2 pitcher for the 2002 World Series team.
"Mitch is just like Bo - he's tough and loves to compete," said Weber. "But they're two different people and players. I look for Mitch to build off last year's experience and be an offensive force for us this year."
Schmidt hit .292 in 24 at bats last season as a freshman and has worked hard in the weight room this off season.
"Tyler's athleticism has improved dramatically and we expect him be a standout defensive player with a strong arm and to build on last year's numbers offensively," said Weber.
Aerts actually began the 2003 season as a starter before Russell moved primarily to the outfield (Russell started games at LF, RF, 3B, and SS for Lakeland last year). Aerts hit .125 in 24 at bats with 1 HR and 3 SB's.
"We need Aerts to step up his game offensively," said Weber. "He has the ability to do it - I have to make him realize how good he can be."
O'Kimosh and Cook are newcomers to the Lakeland program. Cook was actually recruited two years ago by Weber but then decided just to focus on kicking for the football team. He is a switch-hitter with a pretty swing that not too much is known about as he just started working with the team during spring practices. O'kimosh is an exciting athlete that can play anywhere for Lakeland, including shortstop. He's used to winning as his legion team at Shawano won back-to-back state titles.
"It will be interesting to see how Cook responds after a layoff - but if he produces he'll play," said Weber. "O'kimosh will find his way on the field at one spot or another. He's a wiry athlete that can run, hit and throw - from the field or the mound."
Other positional players Weber expects to step up include freshmen Brett Nelson (Shawano, WI), Craig Distin (Whitewater, WI) and Adam Hablewitz (Manitowoc, WI). Nelson teamed with O'kimosh on the Shawano Legion championship teams and can play catcher or outfield. He looks like he will be a strong hitter and runs well for a big man. Distin should make his mark on the mound but is a smooth infielder with a strong arm. Hablewitz is a hard-working second baseman who turns a quick double play and has opened the coaches' eyes.
"I believe all three will be contributors to this program as they are talented and have shown a strong will to improve and succeed," said Weber.
Besides Plucinski, Lakeland will rely on veteran pitcher Dan Rauwerdink (Cleveland, WI), juniors Aerts and Jared Neuman (Bartlett, IL), and a slew of freshmen and sophomores on the mound. Rauwerdink was 3-1 with a 3.50 ERA with 26 strikeouts and only six walks in 36 innings pitched last season.
"Dan has been a leader on our staff the past two seasons but often gets overlooked because he hasn't always started," said Weber. "He has been the consummate team player by filling any role our team needs in order to be successful, including spot starter and both long and short reliever."
Aerts is looking to improve on his 2-3 record and 6.41 ERA from a year ago. He pitched 26.2 innings and had 19 strikeouts last season in six appearances, including five starts.
"Jon has a strong arm and we are looking for him to have a big year," said Weber. "We made an adjustment on his breaking pitch and he has been dominant of late."
Neuman was third on the team with 11 appearances last year as a reliever and expects to have a similar role this year as a closer or setup man. He finished 3-1 with a 4.30 ERA in 14.2 innings.
Sophomores Brett Anschutz (Bailey's Harbor, WI), Doug Mogensen (Appleton, WI), and Schmitt look to battle for time on the hill as well. Anshutz was 1-0 with a 7.98 ERA last season in four appearances, including three starts. He struck out 14 in 14.2 innings. Mogenson appeared in two games as a reliever and pitched two innings with five strikeouts. Schmitt also appeared in two games and finished 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA in 4.1 innings.
"Anschutz and Mogensen showed strong flashes of their ability last year and are looking to be more consistent overall," said Weber. "Schmitt may turn into a valuable left-handed reliever before it's said and done."
With the loss of Govek (6-3, 3.81 ERA, 49 K's in 49.2 IP) to graduation and the unexpected transfer of junior Ryan Urban (6-0, 2.25 ERA, 60 K's, 56 IP), Weber will expect some freshmen to mature quickly and contribute immediately.
"We will clearly rely on some freshmen this year in order to reach our goals. I expect several to be successful and make an immediate impact."
Several pitchers headline the class including Curt Hendricks (DePere, WI), Distin, Mike Rauwerdink (Cleveland, WI - Dan's brother), John Lackinger (Elk Grove, IL), O'Kimosh and Fuhrman.
"These guys will be our horses for years to come," said Weber.
Hendricks led his team to the Triple AAA Legion title last summer and finished 11-0 on the mound. The 6'4 inch slender right-hander's main weapon is a solid fastball with good movement as part of his three pitch arsenal. Distin has been a surprise as he was a backup quarterback on the football team and the coaches didn't see him until this spring. The athletic righty also possesses a good fastball and command of the strike zone with three pitches.
Mike Rauwerdink, or "Little Dink" as he's known to his teammates, isn't that little after all. The 6'3 right-hander is five inches taller than his older brother and has brought the same work ethic that Dan has. In fact, Mike has added 35 pounds to his previously slight frame while looking to show why he was named the Pitcher of the Year of his legion conference last summer.
But Lackinger makes both Hendrick's and Rauwerdink seem small at 6'8 and throwing from the left side. Lackinger's velocity has jumped significantly since enrolling at Lakeland and he is looking to develop his mental game along with the physical.
"John's been through some highs and lows but I know he'll be successful because he's a battler and has great potential both on and off the field," said Weber.
O'Kimosh brings a quick arm despite his smallish 5'8 frame and looks to share the top relief spot with Neuman. He's used to pitching in big games as his Shawano resume will attest to.
Fuhrman brings command of three pitches from the left side and is a smart
"Once Tyler learns what he is as opposed to what he isn't on the mound he will be a solid college pitcher," said Weber. "His development of the change-up will be the key."
Other pitchers who may contribute include Bintner (1-0, 4.74 ERA, 16 K's, 2 BB's in 19 innings last season), Swanson, and freshmen Cory Dacheff (Iron River, MI) and Zach Schmitz (North fond du Lac, WI).
"As you can see, I've mentioned a lot of names for both the positional players and the pitchers," said Weber. "Whoever produces will find their way on the field. I can almost guarantee that the line-up we start the year with will not be the line-up we finish the year with. If I was a player I would be licking my chops for the opportunity to show what I could do. Somebody not even mentioned today could turn out to be a find for us"
Lakeland begins their season with a 12 game swing in Port Charlotte, FL. and opens up with a double header verses Penn State Altoona on March 6th. The Muskies will play 10 varsity games and two junior varsity games at the former spring training facility of the Texas Rangers, including five games on the main stadium field. The tough schedule includes games against three teams that received NCAA bids last year in Ohio Wesleyan (currently ranked 13th nationally), Benedictine (IL), and Endicott (MA).
When the Muskies return home they will play their traditionally strong schedule
against the Lake Michigan Conference and other non-conference opponents like
UW-Oshkosh and UW-Stevens Point.
"I look forward to seeing what these guys can do once we hit the field," said Weber. "They're an energetic group with a lot of talent that are looking for an opportunity to prove themselves."