CLEVELAND – With the top two seasons in program history to build on, a veteran-laden Case Western Reserve University baseball team has its goals focused on a University Athletic Association Championship and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament during the spring of 2013.
The Spartans finished the 2012 campaign at 27-16-1 overall with the second-highest win total in program history. The year prior, Case won a school-record 33 games and placed third at the NCAA Mideast Regional.
Many of the key pieces from those teams remain, and with 20 letterwinners and 10 starters back this spring, seventh-year Head Coach Matt Englander is excited about the prospects this season brings.
"We feel pretty good about the group that we have," said Englander. "It's a talented group on the field, but it's a group that is willing to both lead and also be good teammates. That is crucial to having success over the course of a long season. These guys know what it takes to win important games against good teams, and they have been a part of those games, they haven't just watched. So, the meaningful experience is there."
Unlike years past, the entire Spartan senior class, consisting of five student-athletes this spring, will serve as team captains.
"We've never done this before, but each guy has proven that he needs to be a captain," stated Englander. "It's a dynamic group, and each guy is different in how he leads. But, no guy is more important than the other, and they are all really effective in their roles."
Those aforementioned five senior captains are pitchers Jamie Hora (Twinsburg, Ohio/Twinsburg) and Jarrett Gish (Jupiter, Fla./Suncoast), shortstop Matt Keen (Tallmadge, Ohio/Tallmadge), first baseman Brett Ossola (Potomac, Md./Bullis School) and centerfielder Paul Pakan (Tallmadge, Ohio/Tallmadge).
The starting rotation will be anchored by two of the top left-handers in the region in Hora and Gish.
A two-year captain, Hora was selected to the American Baseball Coaches Association/Rawlings All-Mideast Region Team for the second-consecutive season in 2012. The senior "southpaw" posted an 8-0 record with a 4.16 earned run average, 51 strikeouts and one complete game during 62.2 innings of work. Hora's eight wins tied for the most in a season in program history, and he is just three victories shy of tying the school career record of 21. For his career, Hora is 18-5 with a 4.47 ERA, 10 complete games and 120 strikeouts in 177.1 innings pitched.
Gish returned from shoulder surgery in 2011 and turned in a breakout season last spring with a 6-2 record, 3.78 ERA and a team-best 59 strikeouts in a team-high 69 innings. Gish ranked third in the UAA in strikeouts and was tabbed the league's Pitcher of the Week along with National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association National Pitcher of the Week after throwing a pair of eight-inning scoreless gems and March 27 and April 1.
"Jamie (Hora) and Jarrett (Gish) are everything you look for in a top of the rotation pitcher," noted Englander. "Just in the way they operate, they are confident, but they remain humble and work as hard as anyone else. They set an example on how to do things the correct way, and they push the other guys on the team. They make us better not just when they're on the mound, but when they are on the practice field."
The Spartans lost a starter with the graduation of Bradley Potter and are expected to be without the services of sophomore right-hander Edward Abramson (Maitland, Fla./Winter Park) due to injury, but Englander is confident about the depth of his rotation.
Sophomore RHP Kevin Johnstone (Placentia, Calif./Valencia) is expected to hold down the third spot in the rotation after pitching in 11 games with one start as a freshman. Johnstone, who struck out 18 in 27 innings pitched, logged a key 8.2 innings without surrendering an earned run in a win at nationally-ranked DePauw University (Ind.) late last April.
"Kevin (Johnstone) is as talented a guy as we have," said Englander. "He's really turned the corner in terms of maturity. Last year he pitched well for us and was the victim of some bad luck at times. But, it really came together at the end of the year for him. He had a great performance at DePauw when we needed it, and we think that's the guy we have in Kevin."
Junior closer Jose Vega (Strongsville, Ohio/Padua Franciscan) returns to anchor the bullpen with a school-record 12 career saves. Last spring, the right-hander posted a 3.78 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 16.2 innings with a school single-season record nine saves.
"Jose (Vega) really solidifies our bullpen, and he's been that guy for us for two years," said Englander. "Other than that, it's too early to tell who else might start and who will be relievers because we've got a lot of guys that can win jobs in either spot."
Returnees that figure to compete for those jobs are junior righty Josh Suvak (Independence, Ohio/Independence), junior lefties Ray Kelly (Rochester, N.Y./Aquinas Institute) and John Fortunato (Toledo, Ohio/St. Francis de Sales), and sophomore righties Robert Winemiller (Twinsburg, Ohio/University School) and Daniel Sondag (Cary, N.C./Green Hope).
Suvak appeared in 10 games with one start as a sophomore. In 21.2 innings, Suvak posted a team-best 1.66 ERA, nine strikeouts and a pair of saves. Kelly, the team's top rookie pitcher in 2011, was 1-0 with a 3.31 ERA in nine relief appearances last spring. Fortunato has appeared in 14 games with three starts during his first two seasons.
"We think that everyone on the pitching staff is going to have a role that helps us to win," said the head coach. "Guys like Ray Kelly, John Fortunato and Josh (Suvak) – guys who know how to get outs – they're going to fit somewhere where they can really help us. Either way, we're excited and feel we have a very talented group."
Four starters return in the infield led by a three-time All-UAA first baseman in Ossola. A first-team All-UAA pick last spring, Ossola tied for the team lead with a .329 batting average while totaling two homeruns, 26 runs batted-in, eight doubles, 14 walks and four stolen bases. Having started all 92 games during the past two seasons, Ossola is a career .333 hitter with six homers, 110 RBI and 32 doubles in 162 games.
Up the middle, Keen also returns as a three-time All-UAA selection. In 2012, Keen batted .292 with team bests of 38 runs scored and nine stolen bases. In addition, Keen hit a pair of homers with three triples, nine doubles and 24 RBI. He has started all 134 games during the past three seasons with a career .357 average, 38 doubles, nine triples, 10 homers, 102 RBI and 33 steals. The senior ranks second in school history in both triples and runs as well as third in hits. He is a three-time UAA Championship All-Tournament Team selection and was the conference's Rookie of the Year in 2010. Entering the season, Keen needs just six runs and one triple to tie school career records.
"Matt (Keen) and Brett (Ossola) are catalysts for the offense and overall attitude of our team," said Englander. "The best part is for us, they're not taking their past success for granted this spring. They're actively working to be successful, and it's great to have two guys like that with so much experience to rely on."
Second and third base will each be manned by players that started at multiple positions last spring.
Taking over for the graduated Bobby Marko at second is junior Andrew Frey (Mentor, Ohio/Mentor). In 38 games and a combined 35 starts at second and third last season, Frey batted .319 with six doubles, 13 RBI, 18 walks and 15 runs scored. In 2011, Frey was named the squad's Rookie of the Year after batting .422 in 90 plate appearances.
At third, sophomore Andrew Gronski (Hilliard, Ohio/Hilliard Davidson) returns after seeing time in four different places as a rookie. Overall in 40 games and 37 starts, Gronski led all Spartan freshmen with a .311 average, three homeruns, five doubles, two triples, 17 RBI and 29 runs scored. Gronski's 23 walks were also the most on the team.
The only position in the infield that will be occupied by a non-returning starter is catcher, and the previously mentioned Winemiller will be counted on to replace the graduated Peter Zak.
Winemiller saw action in a combined 17 games at catcher and pitcher, and he batted .243 with three RBI and four runs scored.
Also returning in the infield is sophomore utility man William Meador (Columbus, Ohio/Worthington Kilbourne) along with sophomore catchers Jordan Swisher (Pittsford, N.Y./Pittsford Sutherland) and Ethan Pickering (Grafton, Ohio/Midview)
Meador collected three hits in six at-bats last season while playing at both second and third.
"We're excited to have such versatile guys – Gronski can play just about anywhere. Will (Meador) can play a couple of spots. We have one freshman who can play three spots, and another that will see time at first and in the outfield. That versatility is going to help keep us fresh, keep us healthy, and keep guys in the lineup."
Two starters return in the outfield, including All-UAA centerfielder Pakan. In his first season after transferring to CWRU, Pakan started all 44 games and batted .325 with a UAA-best seven homers. He also led the squad with 55 hits and ranked second with 29 RBI to go along with 10 doubles, 34 runs, 14 walks and six stolen bases in six attempts. Pakan was named to the UAA Championship All-Tournament Team and was a UAA Hitter of the Week.
"Paul is as talented a player as there is at this level," stated Englander. "He knows the game so well, it keeps him from going into long slumps. Our team approach on offense is different than what he experienced on previous teams, and he's figured out what his role need to be here. He's done really well in centerfield too, and that's a new position for him. He's such a great athlete, but he didn't just rely on his athleticism, he focused on making that position his own."
Joining Pakan as a returning starter is junior Jordan Dague (Barberton, Ohio/Barberton), who is expected to start right field. In 39 games and 34 starts, Dague batted .291 with 17 RBI, six doubles, seven runs and seven steals in 10 tries.
Left field, which saw several starters last spring, is expected to be manned by sophomore Kerrigan Cain (Hartville, Ohio/Archbishop Hoban). Cain, who played in 23 games with eight starts in the infield, batted .239 with six RBI, 10 runs and five steals.
"Jordan (Dague) comes in with a lot of experience and athleticism," noted Englander. "That certainly gives him in the inside track to nail down that position. Kerrigan (Cain) won the left field job in the fall, and we expect great things out of him. He's another great athlete that has made a semi-new position look easy.
"But, like all of our positions, there are a lot of guys in the mix. We have 30 guys on the roster, and we like them all. So, hopefully there is going to be a lot of good competition and plenty of opportunities to get guys at-bats."
Much like the past few seasons, highly-touted recruiting classes continue to funnel to Nobby's Ballpark, and several of those newcomers are expected to play significant roles this spring.
Transfer junior Sammy Altman (Atlanta, Ga./Riverwood) and freshman Neal Krentz (Bloomfield Hills, Mich./Lahser) should add depth to the rotation, while freshman infielder Mike Ilacqua (Mayfield Village, Ohio/University School) and freshman outfielder Zach Tobias (Pittsburgh, Pa./Upper St. Clair) should see significant at-bats.
Also joining the mix are pitchers Connor Tagg (Springfield, Va./West Springfield), Andrew Wood (Shaker Heights, Ohio/Shaker Heights) and Lee Penzarella (Philadelphia, Pa./Friends Central), along with outfielders Mitch Bennett (Pottstown, Pa./Owen J. Roberts) and Marques Winick (Naperville, Ill./Naperville North), and catcher/outfielder Noah Sherman (Kensington, Md./Georgetown Preparatory).
"Like I mentioned, we've got 30 guys that we really like and really feel can help us win games, and that certainly includes the newcomers," said Englander. "We won't shy away from utilizing our depth throughout the season."
The 2013 schedule features some of the top teams in the Mideast Region and is expected to be one of the toughest since Englander took over the program in 2007.
"We want to play the best teams that we can to prepare to make a run to a championship," stated Englander. "We're not going to get to regionals by playing weak teams, and ultimately, that is why you play – to compete against the best and beat them."
The Spartans open the season with a neutral game versus local-rival John Carroll University on Friday, February 22 at Linda K. Epling Stadium in Beckley, West Virginia. The team then heads further south on Interstate 77 for a four-game series at Guilford College (N.C.) on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 23-24.
After four-game weekend in Chillicothe, Ohio the following weekend, Case heads south again to the "Sunshine State" for the annual UAA Championship in Sanford from March 10-16.
The northern portion of the schedule opens with a key three-game home and home series with rival Heidelberg University on Saturday-Sunday, March 23-24. The first two games of the series on Saturday will open the home portion of the Spartan schedule at Nobby's Ballpark.
Other key dates include a Friday, March 29 road DH at Ohio Wesleyan University, a Sunday, April 7 home DH with The College of Wooster, a four-game home series with DePauw on Saturday and Sunday, April 20-21, and a Saturday, May 4 road DH at two-time defending National Champion Marietta College.
The Spartans also play their annual game at Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians, on Wednesday, April 24 versus Ohio Northern University.
"Our goals are pretty simple – win the UAA, win regionals, and then go to the World Series," said Englander. "They are realistic goals, and we know that they won't come easy because of the tough teams we have on the schedule. But, we're not going to be afraid of any of them, we're going to play the best we can to get where we want to be."