After an injury-plagued season in 2000 that still saw the Mount Vernon Nazarene College baseball team post a 29-20 overall record and finish as the NAIA Region IX Tournament runner-up, the Cougars are ready to return to the form that helped them post 35-plus wins in each of the previous six years.
"I am really excited about the prospects for this year," said head coach Keith Veale, who has posted a 365-169 record in 11 seasons at MVNC. "I really like this team. We have fewer numbers (on our roster), but we have a lot of versatility in those numbers."
"After an injury-filled 2000 campaign, we have become the hunters instead of the hunted," Veale added. "That is unfamiliar territory for us. I think that it has renewed our motivation and created a more concentrated focus."
Pitching has always been a staple of the Cougar baseball program, and this year's squad could add to the team's legacy at the position. Senior right-hander Mike Waddell anchors the staff after going 6-3 with a 2.81 earned run average a year ago and ranking 14th in the NAIA in strikeouts per nine innings (9.90). For his efforts, he was named the American Mideast Conference Pitcher of the Year and selected as an NAIA Honorable Mention All-American.
Junior left-hander Mark Coulter will also be in the starting rotation after posting an 8-5 record and a 4.81 ERA last year while logging a team-high 73 innings on the mound. Meanwhile, sophomore right-handers Tim Saunders (4-1 with a 5.03 ERA) and Jason Irish (2-1 with a 5.88 ERA) return after pitching quality innings as freshmen.
Junior left-handers Steve Waers and Nate Overholt, sophomore right-hander Lew Hilgenberg, and freshmen Adam Rowe (LHP), Mike Carlisle (RHP), and Jon Barchus (RHP) round out the pitching staff and will all compete for innings. Their continued development will have a significant impact on the team's success.
MVNC's pitching staff should benefit from the experienced players on defense in the infield. The return of junior shortstop Scott Crawford will be one of the most noticeable and significant factors on the infield. A two-time All-Conference selection, Crawford red-shirted the 2000 season after suffering a knee injury during a fall scrimmage. After just two seasons, he already ranks 11th in school history in stolen bases with 32.
Senior Jason Hall returns to start at second base for the fourth straight year. His defense and timely hitting has been a constant throughout his career, and he was an AMC Honorable Mention pick last season after batting .329 and committing just eight errors in 188 chances.
Sophomore Josh Sichina saw plenty of playing time at third base last year and batted .347 with nine doubles, 22 runs scored, and 29 RBI. Coulter also returns at first base where he provides a great target and a solid left-handed bat to balance out the Cougars' lineup. Sophomore Nathan Shafer and freshman Dan Matheney will also provide depth in the infield.
MVNC will return two starters in the outfield led by senior centerfielder Jeff Wine, who batted .343 last year and led the team with 59 hits, 12 doubles, and 51 runs scored. Waddell will play rightfield when not on the mound, and he led the team with six home runs and 44 RBI after batting .345 in 2000.
Seniors Joel Laslo and Matt Stryker, Waers, Irish, and freshmen Matt McDaniel and Aaron Jones will all compete for playing time in the outfield.
Behind the plate, the Cougars plan to begin the season splitting time between Laslo and freshman Justin Clarey. Laslo batted .333 last year with 10 doubles and 36 RBI, while Clarey possesses a very strong arm. Sichina and freshman Adrian Leibas will provide added depth.
"We must remain healthy this year," said head coach Keith Veale. "With fewer people on the roster, key injuries could have a ripple effect in a few positions. Even with our injuries a year ago, we were not too far off. We always have high expectations. For the first time in a few years, we are not ranked in the NAIA preseason poll. Maybe we can surprise some people."
The Cougars will begin the season on Thursday when the team plays a doubleheader against Illinois Institute of Technology in Fort Myers, Florida. The first game is slated to start at 4:00 p.m. The twinbill will be the first of eight doubleheaders that MVNC will play as part of its annual spring trip before returning to Ohio to begin the conference portion of its schedule on March 27 at home against Cedarville University.