Baseball Rams see nation’s best
Will Shepherd’s baseball team get outside to practice before opening the season against three of the nation’s best teams?
Setting its sights on defending national champion Tampa, fifth-ranked Mount Olive, and USC-Aiken, Shepherd has been hunkered down in the Butcher Center, keeping a safe distance from its snow-littered Fairfax Field and the daily temperatures that didn’t reach 20-degrees for days on end.
The three national powers will see Shepherd this weekend in games played in Aiken, South Carolina.
All three of those weather-advantaged teams will have played at least three games with Tampa having traveled to Cuba to open its season in mid-January.
Tampa was 47-12 last year, Mount Olive was 48-8 and USC-Aiken was 42-13. And Shepherd was inside the Butcher Center practicing with whiffle balls and in batting cages getting ready for the three NCAA Division II powers.
This will be Coach Matt McCarty’s second season, and his Rams were 28-20 in 2013, their last year in the dismantled WVIAC.
Seton Hill had the best record in the WVIAC’s final bow, going 42-17, but it was Concord (36-20) winning the conference tournament.
McCarty’s first-ever team qualified for the final WVIAC tournament behind the hitting of Ryan Messina, Michael Lott, Mark McCormick, Chad Murphy and Kyle Porter and the pitching of Paul Hvozdovic, Ryan Pansch and Davis Hall.
Besides Murphy and Hall, the other senior of note on the 2013 team was Jake Cook.With the demise of the WVIAC, the Rams have gone to the newly created Mountain East Conference. Seton Hill is not there. Concord is there.
Three decades of history show that West Virginia State is the best of the carry-over schools joining Shepherd and seven others from the WVIAC in the Mountain East. The Yellow Jackets were the only team with a winning record from among West Liberty, Fairmont, Wheeling Jesuit, Charleston, West Virginia Wesleyan and Glenville.
Urbana (Ohio), Notre Dame (Ohio) and Virginia-Wise complete the dozen-school field for Mountain East baseball. Only Urbana (22-19) had a winning mark among those three schools.
McCarty has a core of hitters with credentials.
Messina batted .444 last season when he was named on an All-America team. He slugged 14 homers, had 55 RBIs and a .515 on-base percentage. Lott finished with a .406 average, scored a team-high 54 runs, had 19 doubles and showed a .500 on-base percentage. Like Messina, he received All-America mention.
McCormick took over at third base about 10 games into the season and finished with a .370 batting average. Porter hovered near the .370 mark for most of the season before settling for season-closing .329 average with 37 RBIs.
Another returning starter is shortstop T.J. Weisenburg, who batted .279 to augment his steady fielding contributions.
The Mountain East schedule calls for weekend doubleheaders against each conference team.
Pitching is the most important factor in most Shepherd baseball seasons. The Rams will need four reliable starters when the Mountain East doubleheaders begin to appear on the schedule at the end of February.
McCarty has two proven small-college winners in senior Hvozdovic and sophomore Pansch. Hvozdovic was 10-5 with a 3.66 earned run average last year, winning seven of his last nine decisions. But he incurred arm problems when pitching for Front Royal last summer in the Valley Baseball League.
Pansch appeared in 20 games with four starts and went 4-3 with a 3.17 earned run average. In his 54 innings, Pansch fanned 64 and only walked 16.
Shepherd will flourish or fail with its other pitchers, many of them being in their first seasons with the Rams.
There are many first-year players on McCarty’s roster. A number of transfers are going to be important, either because they can contribute or because their failures can’t be overcome by others on the roster.
The competition from other Mountain East members will not be overpowering, but if the Rams don’t find some incoming help they won’t be overpowering, either.
Tyler Thomas is a sophomore carryover from 2013 where he batted .174 with one home run and couldn’t distinguish himself as a pitcher. He’s a first baseman, but if he could move to the four-man starting rotation for conference games his contribution on the mound would be enough.
There are three pitching possibilities from Frederick (Md.) Community College. They are Austin Hale, Sam Crater and Justin Goodrich. Crater and Goodrich can play other positions.
Other pitchers in their first seasons at Shepherd are Mac West, John Bentley and Zane Bard.
Coming in from Garrett (Md.) Community College is catcher/infielder Jason Hepple, who started 44 of the Lakers’ 50 games, batted .342 (51-for-149), had four homers and 31 RBIs.
Transfers Bryce Shemer (started one game at Colorado Mesa where he was 5-for-18 last year for a .278 average), Austin Guy (batted .184 at Wheeling-Jesuit), Bard (who didn’t appear in any games last year at Mt. St. Marys), Spencer Wolfe (appeared in eight games, going 0-for-8, at USC-Aiken), Matt Wilson (attended Essex (Md.) CC, but didn’t play in 2013) are candidates.
Lawrence Gant is an outfielder from Bowie (Md.) High School and is in his first year at Shepherd. Darius Jones is a sophomore outfielder who saw limited service last season. Dylan Garten is another sophomore looking for more playing time.
Players returning from 2013 include catcher Cody Bumbaugh (.222), infielder Bryan DiRosario (.238) and infielder Brandon Coffey (.229).
The quality of the new players will determine Shepherd’s fate. There are not enough quality-consistent holdovers, especially the pitchers, to hoist everybody else on their backs and carry the season to success.
The Mountain East is not a top-to-bottom league with meaningful teams. Concord and West Virginia State — along with past Shepherd teams — have been the year in-year out standard bearers.
After seeing three of the country’s best to open its season, Shepherd comes back to the Mountain East Conference, where the competition has been just as strained by the oppressive weather and the talent can’t compare with Tampa, Mount Olive or USC-Aiken.