The Case Western Reserve University baseball team will head into the 2018 campaign with high expectations, returning a good portion of its roster from last season and adding a number of talented pieces to a squad that went 24-16 last season and finished second in the University Athletic Association with an 11-5 conference record.
Facing the toughest strength of schedule in all of Division III last season, the Spartans overcame a slow start to the year, winning 22 of their final 29 games. In the first year of site play in the history of the league, the Spartans finished second in the UAA standings, sweeping a four-game series at home against Brandeis, taking three of four on the road against New York University, and splitting series on the road against then third-ranked Emory and at home against then 16th-ranked and eventual conference champions Washington University (Mo.). Case Western Reserve was also particularly strong at home, going 11-2 at Nobby's Ballpark in 2017, and has recorded a 20-5 mark at home over the last two years.
Case Western Reserve hit .273 as a team last season and averaged 6.75 runs per game, while leading the UAA in home runs (18), triples (17), and doubles (74). The pitching staff finished the year with an earned run average of 4.35 and an opponents' batting average of .262, including a 3.49 ERA and a .238 opponents' average in conference games.
Key loses for the Spartans from last year's team include starting pitcher Jake Shields (6-3, 3.15 ERA), outfielders Aaron Cain (.325, 37 runs, 4 3B), Josh Neal (.286, 2 HR, 18 RBI), Tony Damiano (.266, 23 RBI, 18 SB) and catcher Eric Eldred (.263, 2 HR, 18 RBI). However, 22 players are expected to return, including nine pitchers, 11 position players and a pair of utility players. Six returning position players started at least 20 games, while nine played in at least 20 contests, and seven of the pitchers returning appeared in 10 or more contests.
"We feel like we have 31 good players on the team, and they're guys who work very hard," said 12th-year Head Coach Matt Englander. "So far the spring has been encouraging, but you don't really know how good you are until you start playing someone else. We're excited for the first game to get here.
"We had some really great seniors, and we're certainly going to miss those guys, but we're returning players who had a lot of experience last year, both in the field and at the plate," continued Englander. "They're not three year starters, but they're experienced players who know how to win college baseball games."
Junior Tyler Wypiszenski will start the season as the Spartans' primary option at catcher, after playing in 31 games last year and made 26 starts between catcher and designated hitter. He was CWRU's top hitter during the campaign, leading the team with a .336 batting average, three home runs, 14 doubles and 30 runs batted in. Sophomore Cameron Wheeler will add experience to the position as well, and an influx of talented freshmen catchers, including Tre Armstrong, Jake Ryan and David Trisko, will make it one of the deepest positions on the Spartans' roster.
"Tyler is a talented player and we're really excited to have him back as a junior," said Englander. "He's good behind the plate, he can really throw, and he got some big hits for us. We think we have a few good young players behind him as well. They've shown some really good signs coming out of the fall and into the spring, and we're excited for their future."
The Spartans will be returning a plethora of veteran talent in the infield for the 2018 campaign. Sophomore Casey McConihe split time at first base and pitcher in 2017, batting .319 during his freshman season with a home run and 14 runs batted in. Junior Jacob Kucia cemented his role at third base last year, finishing the campaign with a .290 batting average, 11 extra base hits (including a team-best three home runs) and 18 RBI, while Ryan and junior Mike Najmowicz could also see time at first base.
In the middle of the infield, junior Rocco Maue has started all 75 of his career games at shortstop during his first two seasons with the team, but could see more time at second base in 2018, with freshman shortstop Jacob Lott making a strong push to enter the lineup. Seniors Alex Capetillo and Danny Souza have each played in over 70 games over their careers, with Capetillo making 28 starts last season and Souza making 10.
"We have a lot of experienced guys and some young guys who can play," said Englander. "It's one of the most athletic groups that we've had in a long time. We have players who can run, players who can defend, and some who are more power-type players. They're going to keep me on my toes because we have more than four options who can play."
While the Spartans will need to revamp their outfield after losing their three primary starters last season to graduation, the team has a number of experienced options who will see their roles either changed or increased with the openings. Leading the group of returners will be senior Dan Watson, who was an All-Region selection in 2016, batted .291 with 11 extra base hits and 23 RBI last year, and is 10th in program history with a .438 on base percentage over his career. Sophomores Noah Mehrle (.289, 18 RBI) and Chris Shorter (.328, two HR, nine RBI) each saw extensive playing time as freshmen in 2017, and will look to see expanded playing time in the outfield in 2018.
Other returning options for the Spartans include junior Jacob Pestel, who appeared in six games last season and homered in his only start of the campaign, and sophomore Samuel Neal, who saw action in a pair of contests as a freshman, in addition to senior Nate Glasser, and Najmowicz. CWRU has also added freshman outfielder Benjamin Stawicki to the roster for the upcoming season.
"Again, it's a really athletic group," said Englander of his outfielders. "Dan Watson is a great athlete and has grown into a great leader, and is really leading the charge, especially attitude-wise, for our outfielders. They're athletic, they're hungry, and they work really hard."
Despite losing the anchor of their rotation last season in Shields, Case Western Reserve will be returning a good portion of their staff from last year. Junior righty Mark Gross will be a battle-tested replacement for the Spartans, having started since his freshman year and recording a career 3.22 ERA (sixth-lowest in program history), while going 4-4 with a 2.93 ERA and a .266 opponents' batting average last season. Senior Ben Murphy will aim to provide a follow-up to his breakout junior campaign, during which he went 4-1 with a 2.51 ERA and a .198 opponents' batting average over six starts and eight appearances. McConihe, a lefty, started six games and appeared in 10 overall during his freshman year, going 3-0 for the year, and will look to return to the rotation in 2018.
"Mark, Ben and Casey are three different types of pitchers, which is good when you're going to face a team four times in a weekend," said Englander. "They know how to pitch, and they know how to compete on the mound, and we feel comfortable with them going against anyone we are going to play."
Freshman right-handed pitcher Matt Levine will look to make an early impact as a starting pitching option, while sophomore Matthew Speitel and freshmen Tony Smodilla and Carter Schwertle could either vie for starts or see time out of the bullpen this year.
"Those guys have done well. They have live arms and they compete, which is what we ask of them," said Englander. "We expect big things from a lot of this guys, and they've done a nice job of getting better and working on the things they're not going at. It's an exciting group."
The bullpen should be a strength for the Spartans, as the team will be returning three southpaws who all had a big impact last season. Senior Liam Killingstad (3.34 ERA, four saves) and junior Corey Brown (3-1, 3.63 ERA) led the squad with 17 appearances apiece last season, while sophomore Scott Kutschke added 10 appearances and led all Spartan players with five saves and a 1.29 ERA. Killingstad will also enter his senior campaign with a career .204 opponents' batting average, the lowest by a pitcher with at least 50 innings pitched in CWRU history.
"Liam, Corey and Scott have been through different battles, and they have really relished the bullpen role. They like coming in when it matters and things are getting difficult, and that, to me, is the most important thing out of the bullpen – finding someone who wants to pitch in that type of situation," said Englander.
Senior Nate Glasser (four saves and 26 appearances over his career), sophomores Paul Slota (4-1 over 10 bullpen appearances last year) and Tony Yambor and freshman Michael Pedota could also contribute out of the bullpen this season. In addition, Najmowicz is also likely to see time on the mound this season, after spending his first two seasons on the team exclusively as a position player.
"We're really encouraged by the arms and the attitudes we have in the bullpen," said Englander.
Englander has spent his entire 12-year career as a head coach with Case Western Reserve and ranks as the winningest coach in the program's history, a milestone he reached during the Spartans' doubleheader sweep over Brandeis last season. He will enter the season with a career record of 258-203-2, good for a .559 winning percentage, including a .564 winning percentage (44-34) in UAA contests. His teams at CWRU have averaged 28 wins over the past eight seasons, winning two UAA Championships, earning four bids to the NCAA Championships, and setting a program record with 34 victories in 2014, a year in which Englander was named the Mideast Region Coach of the Year by D3baseball.com.
Englander is assisted by Nick Callahan, who is now in his sixth season with the team, Branden Stucky, who will be embarking on his seventh campaign on the squad's coaching staff, and alumnus Andrew Rossman, who is joining the staff this year.
As has been the case during Englander's time with the program, the Spartans' schedule should once again be one of the toughest in Division III this season, with 19 of their 40 games against opponents who were either ranked or received votes in the D3baseball.com/NCBWA Preseason Top-25.
"You don't face many bad teams in regionals, so if you go into the NCAA Tournament, and you're experience is beating up on bad teams, you're not going to last very long," said Englander. "We make playing the best teams a priority because it's the only way that you can see if you are any good. The players know the philosophy here is to do things because they are difficult, which is the reasoning behind what we do with the schedule."
Case Western Reserve will face an immediate test to start their season, opening their campaign with two games against both third-ranked Washington and Jefferson (which was the national runner-up in 2017) and Allegheny in Washington, Pennsylvania on March 3rd and 4th.
From there, the Spartans will head to Lexington County Stadium in Lexington, South Carolina (home of the Lexington County Blowfish of the Coastal Plain League) to host a 20-game tournament between March 10th and March 17th, which includes games for the Spartans against preseason #1 SUNY Cortland, Roger Williams, Trinity (Conn.), and Rochester.
The Spartans will play their home opener on Saturday, March 24th with a doubleheader against Ohio Wesleyan, and then begin UAA play at home with a four-game series against Emory, which received votes in the D3baseball.com Preseason Poll, from March 30th through April 1st. After a road UAA series at Brandeis from April 6th – 8th and a home conference weekend against NYU from April 13th – 15th, the Spartans will begin a stretch of 11 of 12 games against teams either ranked or receiving votes to end their campaign. The tough period will begin with the third meeting of the season against #3 Washington and Jefferson on April 18th in the team's annual game at Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians. The Spartans will then play a four-game series against Washington (receiving votes) in St. Louis, a single home game against 14th-ranked Wooster, a road doubleheader at Marietta (receiving votes), and conclude their season with a three-game home series against Chicago (receiving votes) on May 12th and 13th.
If all goes according to plan, the Spartans hope to be included in the field for the NCAA Championships when it is announced on May 13th. 2018 will be the final year that the NCAA postseason for baseball will not include a super-regional round, with NCAA Regionals scheduled for May 17th – 21st. The final round of the NCAA Championships will be played in Appleton, Wisconsin for the final time as well, as the championship will move to Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 2019. This year's NCAA finals are scheduled to be held from May 25th – 30th.
"We need to make winning the priority and be creative as to how we do that," said Englander. "A lot of kids want to have a plan as to how their day, their game, and their at bat will go, and when the plan gets thrown out the window, you need to adjust. If we can compete in the moments when things aren't going how you want them to go, I think we can be good."