The Case Western Reserve University baseball team will be aiming to qualify for the NCAA Division III Championships for the second-straight season, when the squad takes the field for the 2020 campaign.
Last season, the Spartans reached the postseason for the fifth time in the program's history, and finished the campaign with an overall record of 24-15, while playing a regular season schedule that ranked as the fourth-strongest in all of Division III. Case Western Reserve went on to win its first two games at the NCAA Regionals, before eventually succumbing in the final games of the regionals to end their 2019 campaign. CWRU also finished 7-7 in University Athletic Association play, placing among the top-two teams in the league standings for the third time in as many years of site play in the conference.
The 2020 squad will feature a near even mix of returners and new faces. Although the Spartans graduated a pair of all-region infielders from last year's team in third baseman Jacob Kucia and second baseman Rocco Maue, along with All-UAA catcher Tyler Wypiszenski, the team is slated to return 16 players, including six starting position players, all four starting pitchers from the team's UAA rotation, and three relief pitchers who appeared in at least seven games during the year.
"This year reminds be a lot of our offseason between 2013 and 2014," said CWRU Head Baseball Coach Matt Englander. "We lost a really special senior class after 2013 that went to regionals. Coming back in 2014, we didn't know what to expect because those guys were gone. We had some players that we knew were really talented though, but hadn't had an opportunity, and when they finally got their chance, they played great. There's a lot of similarities between the 2014 team and this year's, because we have a lot of talent and a lot of players who are younger, but just haven't broken through yet. I could see us having a pretty good year if they play to their ability."
Among the team's returners are all-region selections in sophomore left-handed pitcher Nick Denove, junior catcher Jake Ryan, and senior left-handed relief pitcher Scott Kutschke, along with all-conference senior first baseman Casey McConihe. Joining the experienced group will be 14 first-year players, many of which should be able to immediately step into contributing roles on the team.
"We have a pretty talented group, and a good range of players in all classes that are going to be able to help us," said Englander. "Everybody has a path to help us this year, and it's not necessarily just if some people in front of them get hurt. We've got good depth and great leadership in all of the classes, so we're pretty excited for the spring."
The Spartans' pitching should be one of the team's strengths for the upcoming season, after notching an earned run average of 3.53, the second-best among UAA teams and 28th in the country, and a WHIP of 1.28, third in the conference and 22nd in Division III, during the 2019 campaign.
Anchoring the top of the rotation will be Denove and junior right-handed pitcher Matt Levine. Denove led the Spartans with a 7-2 record and a 1.99 ERA (46th in DIII), while notching five complete games (17th in DIII) and two shutouts during the year. In addition, his 0.92 WHIP was 20th among all Division III pitchers during the season, and the lowest among league pitchers. Levine added a 6-3 record with a 2.69 earned run average and held opponents to a .221 batting average during the year.
Three other returning Spartans had starting experience last season – sophomore righty Willem Bouma (3-1, 4.78 ERA), southpaw McConihe (2-2, 7.20 ERA) and junior righty Tony Smodilla (0-1, 4.15 ERA). First-year right-handed pitchers Benjamin Gorski and Sankalp Doshi should also vie for spots in the starting rotation in 2020.
"We're excited about our pitchers. It's a talented group, and we've returned a number of players from last year," said Englander. "With Denove and Levine at the top of the rotation, we feel pretty good about things. And we have a lot of options for the next spots in the rotation, including Smodilla, McConihe and Bouma, to go along with the two freshman who will pitch a lot in some role. We think we have seven pitchers who can log starter innings, and if not, they'll be the first guys in and succeed in that role."
Kutschke will look to lead the team out of the bullpen once again, following a 4-0 campaign in 2019. He finished the year with a 2.15 ERA and four saves over 13 appearances and 37.2 innings of work, while striking out 34 batters and walking just five. Senior righty Paul Slota emerged as an option out of the bullpen last year, going 1-1 with a 2.08 ERA over nine appearances, while sophomore righty Keaton Stankowski appeared in four games and notched a 6.75 ERA.
Right-handed pitchers Cooper Schmidt and Jackson Morris and southpaw Jonathan Simon, each first-year players, should provide Englander with additional options for his pitching staff this season.
"Kutschke is back healthy and ready to go after suffering through an injury the last third of the year. Slota is a senior who is talented and works hard, and he's going to be a big part of things this year, along with a number of young guys," said Englander. "We're really excited about our staff because it's so deep."
After starting all 39 games for the Spartans last season, including nine behind the plate, junior Jake Ryan will assume the full-time catching duties for the team this year, while also aiming to maintain his standing as one of the region's most dangerous hitters. Ryan finished his sophomore campaign batting .345 with 15 doubles, three triples, nine home runs and 39 runs batted in.
"We're very comfortable with Jake assuming the role of an everyday catcher for us," said Englander. "He's going to do great things both behind home plate, and at the plate, offensively."
Junior Tre Armstrong appeared in 18 games last season, batting .196 with a home run and six RBIs, and should see time at both catcher and designated hitter this season.
"Tre is healthy for the first time since he's been here. He's going to be able to spell Jake behind the plate, but he's going to get a lot of at bats in other roles throughout the year," said Englander
Junior Sam Nalli will add further veteran depth at the position, and three first-year players – Jack Anderson, Trevor McCraw and David Dillman – could also see time behind the plate for the Spartans in 2020.
The Spartans will be returning two of their four starters in the field last year in junior shortstop Jacob Lott and McConihe. Lott has started nearly every game at shortstop for the Spartans over the last two years, and has emerged as one of the top defensive players at the position in the country. He finished the year batting .259 with four doubles and a triple.
"Lott is as good a defensive player as there is, and he's starting to swing the bat as well," said Englander. He's made a lot of adjustments, and he is very strong. He is someone who has played a lot and knows what it takes to be successful, and has worked hard to have a breakout season this year."
McConihe started 21 games at first base, batting .303 with a home run and 15 RBIs. A pair of first-year players in RJ Christie and Flynn Lenahan may see time at first as well during the year.
"We have guys who can swing the bat and are athletic players at first," said Englander. "It should give us some flexibility when Casey pitches, because we have some depth at the position."
Second and third base are likely to be handled by a combination of first-year players, with Gorski, Trey Haley, Owen Levinson and Nick Talarico all in the mix. Smodilla could see his name slotted into one of the infield spots at times during the campaign.
"These guys are all more than capable of playing at a high level," said Englander. "Its going to be a mixture of each of them, and they may move around a little bit, but we feel more than confident with the athleticism each of those guys possess, and Jacob anchoring things at short."
The outfield should be the most experienced unit of the Spartans' lineup, with four veteran players returning for the 2020 campaign. Senior Samuel Neal has been a mainstay in centerfield for the Spartans over the past two years, and is coming off a campaign during which he started 36 games and hit .292 with three home runs and 22 RBIs, while stealing 10 bases. In the corner outfield positions, junior Benjamin Stawicki appeared in 31 games last year, including 29 as a starter, and batted .324 with a home run and 22 RBIs, while senior Noah Mehrle hit .304 with two home runs and 11 RBIs during 26 games, including 22 starts. Sophomore Cole Jarrett can play all three spots in the outfield, and hit .277 with a home run and five RBIs over 25 games last year.
"It is a pretty crowded and talented group out there," said Englander. "Jarrett has come in and had a really great fall after a promising year last year, and he's going to be playing a lot. Neal, Stawicki and Mehrle have all played consistently too, and that gives you four players who are all going to see a lot of time."
First-year options with a chance to appear in the outfield this year include Kevin Mackenzie, Lenahan, McCraw and Simon.
"We have a lot of options for at bats and innings among outfielders," said Englander. "We can mix and match righties and lefties, and pinch run. We can play someone who is hot, or play someone that is a good matchup. The depth out there is going to really help us win games this year."
Englander, who will be starting his 14th season with the team, is the winningest coach in the program's history, going 311-228-2 during his tenure with the squad, good for a .577 winning percentage. He has led the team to 10-straight seasons of at least 24 wins, while making five NCAA postseason appearances and claiming the UAA Championship three times.
Englander is assisted by Nick Callahan, who is in his ninth year with the Spartans, and his fifth year since rejoining the staff in 2016, along with Branden Stucky, who will be starting his eighth year with the squad.
The Spartans schedule has consistently ranked among the toughest in Division III in recent years, and 2020 looks to be no different. Case Western Reserve is scheduled to play 17 games against teams that are either nationally ranked or receiving votes in one of the two major polls, including eight games against teams currently ranked in the top-10 nationally in the D3baseball.com Top-25.
"We've had one of the top strengths of schedule over the past few years, and this will probably be the toughest we've ever played, which is by design," said Englander. "We play some really great teams – our conference is loaded again, but our out of conference schedule is right on point with that. We'll be ready for it – usually our guys are tough, and if they're not, we're going to find out quick."
After opening their 2020 campaign with a three-game series at Earlham College from February 22-23, CWRU will have three-straight games against nationally-ranked teams, including a doubleheader at 20th-ranked Washington & Jefferson on February 29, and their home opener against 10th-ranked Wooster on March 1. The Spartans will then travel south for the 2020 Spartan Southern Classic in Lexington, South Carolina, where the team will play nine games in as many days, including contests against seventh-ranked Cortland on March 13 and sixth-ranked Southern Maine on March 14. The Spartans will then play seven addition non-conference games, including three games against team receiving votes in the preseason poll – a doubleheader at Marietta on March 22 and a single home game against Baldwin Wallace on March 31.
University Athletic Association play will begin for the Spartans in early April, when the team will travel to Waltham, Massachusetts from April 3-5 to face Brandeis, and then continue their road swing with a key four-game set against eighth-ranked Washington (Mo.) from April 10-12. CWRU will then return home to host Emory, which received votes in the Collegiate Baseball preseason poll, from April 17-19, and NYU from April 24-26.
"The teams in our conference are outstanding, and anyone is capable of winning any day," said Englander. "We're seeing teams start to find their niche and they're all outstanding teams on a national level. They're really good, well coached teams, and to be able to match up your starters and see who is better is a lot of fun."
CWRU is slated to wrap-up its regular season with a single game against Heidelberg, ranked fifth in Division III, on April 29. Should the team qualify as either via a pool 'B' or at large bid, the regional round of the postseason will be held from May 15-17, followed by the super regionals from May 22-24. Teams that advance through the super regionals will head to the finals in Cedar Rapids, Iowa from May 29-June 3.
However far the Spartans go in 2020, the season is certain to be an exciting one with a motivated group of players leading the way for the team. Englander and the team are more than willing to share the excitement with the rest of the CWRU community.
"Our guys work very hard and our ballpark is second to none. Being there is something that's special. I encourage people to come out and see us play. The guys appreciate it, and we'd love to see people at Nobby's Ballpark this season," said Englander.