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It may be early, but Shepherd vs. Concord could decide MEC title

By Staff | Mar 14, 2014

Shepherd is already 6-2 in the Mountain East Conference baseball race, but the Rams are two games behind unbeaten Concord (8-0) in the early-season standings.

And Concord is in town this weekend for four games at Fairfax Field as Shepherd gives its fans a first look at its 2014 team.

After 13 games at either neutral sites or on the road, the Rams bring an overall record of 8-5 to their first home games of the season.

While the Mountain East Conference gives each of its 12 teams a 44-game schedule, this weekend’s four games between Shepherd and the visiting Mountain Lions could eventually be the most important weekend of the league’s regular season.

Concord is 11-3 overall, having beaten Mt. Olive a team Shepherd lost to on its season-opening, three-game trip to Aiken, South Carolina.

Joey Miller, the probable MEC Player of the Year, brings a .490 batting average and 22 RBIs in just 14 games with him to Fairfax Field for Saturday’s and Sunday’s doubleheaders that both start at 1 p.m. The Mountain Lions have a .329 team batting average with regulars Bret Blevins (.389), Jerrod Groves (.353), Joe Camp (.326), Brad Sullivan (.308), Ryan Johnston (.298) and Andrew Seigel (.286) helping Miller with Concord’s productive offense.

The Mountain Lions are 31 of 42 on stolen bases attempts, but have only four home runs as a team.

And their opponents have a .313 team batting average against the Concord pitching staff.

The best of the starters is Ryan Weatherholtz, whose 3-0 record in four starts (two complete games) is accompanied by a 2.33 earned run average. Two of other three likely starters are Tyler Coyle (2-1 record but with a 4.85 earned run average in four starts) and Chris Kelly (2-1 record but a 6.64 earned run average in his four starts).

The Mountain Lions have made only 13 errors in their 14 games.

In conference games (all at home in Athens), Concord went 4-0 against Fairmont and 4-0 against Notre Dame (Ohio).

Shepherd has five hitters in its usual starting lineup that are new to the 2014 team.

The returning starters are Michael Lott, batting .400 and stealing bases with his usual aplomb; Kyle Porter, currently hitting .300 and also stealing bases with a high success rate; Ryan Messina, off to a pedestrian start but now hitting .282 and also stealing bases; and T.J. Weisenburg, batting .323 coming into this weekend’s crucial four-game series. Lott and Porter are outfielders, Weisenburg is the Rams’ shortstop and Messina has been used exclusively as the designated hitter.

The fans will get their first Fairfax Field looks at catcher Spencer Wolfe, who has already driven in 15 runs, gone 8-for-8 on stolen bases attempts, hit a pair of homers and climbed his batting average to a .386; outfielder Matt Wilson, now with a .462 average; freshman second baseman Jacob Carney, currently hitting .429 and joining the others in successfully stealing bases; third baseman Bryce Shemer, coming to the Concord series with a.275 average; and infielder/pitcher Austin Guy, who is 5-for-21 for a .239 average.

Shepherd’s team batting average excedes the .315 mark and the Rams have stolen 52 bases in only 62 attempts.

In its first two conference series, Shepherd went 3-1 in Virginia against Wise and then 3-1 last weekend on the road against Charleston.

Senior left-hander Paul Hvozdovic is already 3-0 and when he blanked Charleston last weekend he became Shepherd’s all-time leader in wins with 25. He was the conference Pitcher of the Week. In 25 innings this season, Hvozdovic has walked only two. If he is matched against Concord’s Weatherholtz this weekend, runs and hits could be scarce for either side.

Sophomore right-hander Ryan Pansch has an earned run average of about 1.30 but was the victim of shutout pitching by Rams’ opponents and is 1-2. He has more strikeouts than innings pitched and also walks very few. Right-hander Jamie Driver has gone 2-0 with an ERA of less than a run a game. He had a shutout against Charleston last weekend with a three-hitter. Like Hvozdovic and Pansch, Driver has walked very few.

Hale moved his record to 1-1 when he went six innings in Shepherd’s 5-1 win over Charleston. It was Hale’s first start of the season after being hit around as a reliever. He has walked six in his 9.2 innings this season. Pitcher Sam Crater was removed after pitching only one inning as a starter against Charleston in a game the Rams lost, 1-0.

The early-season conference standings see Concord, West Liberty, West Virginia State, Urbana and Shepherd moving away from the rest of the pack. Of course, none of the early leaders have played each other and Shepherd’s single losses to Wise and Charleston could be factors in the schedule’s long run.

If it stays injury-free, Concord will finish no lower than third in the final standings. The Mountain Lions were the pre-season pick by the 12 coaches to finish first this season.

Hvozdovic, Pansch and Driver are Shepherd’s most important players this weekend. “Good pitching stops good hitting”, the age-old adage claims. And “Good pitching stops NCAA Division II hitting” goes without saying.

These are Shepherd’s first home games. And they are probably the most important ones of the entire season if the Rams are to be challenging the Mountain Lions at the very end.