Coming off a 35-16 season in 2001 and finishing one victory away from winning the NAIA Region IX Tournament for the second straight year, the Mount Vernon Nazarene College baseball team has set its sights high heading into the 2002 campaign.
"We have been knocking on the door in recent years and feel that we have the talent to open the door and return to the championship form of the late '90's," said MVNC head coach Keith Veale, referring to the string of four straight conference titles that the Cougars won from 1995-1998. "We are business-like in our approach, and we must continue to challenge ourselves in order to get deep into the postseason."
"We have a nice blend of experienced veterans and young eager-to-prove-something players," added Veale, who has posted a 400-185 record at MVNC as he enters his thirteenth season. "Our abilities will give us a chance. Our effort and motivation will give us results."
The Cougars have become well-known for their pitching throughout the program's successful history and the 2002 rotation should add to this legacy. Senior left-hander Mark Coulter highlights the staff after posting a 9-3 record with a 3.57 ERA in earning NAIA Honorable Mention All-American honors last year.
Senior Chris Holly (RHP) and sophomore Adam Rowe (LHP) will follow Coulter in the rotation. Holly transferred to MVNC after posting a 24-2 career record in three years at Ohio Dominican College, while Rowe went 8-4 with a team-best 3.51 ERA in making the American Mideast Conference Second Team as a freshman in 2001.
Junior Jason Irish (RHP) returns to the starting rotation after posting a 3-4 record last year, while sophomore Jon Barchus (RHP) will move into the starting rotation after posting a 3-3 record with five saves as the closer in 2001.
Sophomore Mike Carlisle (RHP) and freshmen Nick Schwartz (RHP) and Derek Morey (RHP) will compete for additional innings and could provide much-needed innings in relief or starting games. Meanwhile, sophomore Lew Hilgenberg (RHP) is penciled in to return to his closing role after red-shirting last season.
"We are excited about the potential of our pitching staff," said Veale. "The quality of options filters deep into a staff of nine arms. Our pitching depth should give us an opportunity to compete every time out."
"Mark (Coulter) brings leadership qualities to our program as well as a warrior's mentality," Veale said. "Chris (Holly) has been a proven winner and is regarded as a frontline starter in our conference. Adam (Rowe) had an outstanding freshman year and will continue to get better. He is talented and resilient with the ability to beat anyone on our schedule. Jason (Irish) had some quality game experience last year and will bring another solid force to the mound. Jon (Barchus) is our hardest thrower and with improvements can dominate some innings. This group as a staff is deeper and better than in recent years."
Handling the pitching staff will be left up to sophomore catcher Justin Clarey, who burst on the scene last year with six home runs, 32 RBI, and a .377 batting average as he was named an NAIA Honorable Mention All-American. He also possesses a strong arm behind the plate which controls the opponents' running game. He will be backed up by freshman D.J. Crocker.
The infield for the Cougars should be solid with starters returning at every position. When not on the mound, Coulter will start at first base where he compiled 10 home runs, 52 RBI, and a .374 batting average last year.
Sophomore Dan Matheney will start at second base after playing in 49 games as a freshman, including starting 32 games primarily at shortstop. He continues to get stronger at the plate where he batted .284 as a freshman.
Senior Scott Crawford returns to anchor the MVNC defense at shortstop. One of the marquee players in the AMC capable of breaking a game open offensively or making a great defensive play, Crawford posted a .449 batting average with five home runs, five triples, 30 RBI, and 34 runs scored in just 26 games before an injury ended his season prematurely. Along with Matheney, Crawford forms a smooth double play combination that will be a strength of the club.
Junior Josh Sichina returns at third base where he posted a .324 batting average with four home runs and 27 RBI as an AMC Honorable Mention pick in 2001. Sichina fields his position well and hits with pop in the middle of the lineup.
Freshmen Ty Dendinger, Tim Martini, and Justin Ward all add depth at the infield positions after joining the Cougars following successful high school careers.
The outfield is somewhat open and yet far from empty. Seniors Steve Waers, Eddie Wright, and Nate Overholt will join sophomore Aaron Jones in competing with a talented freshman class that includes Eli Johnson, Matt Myers, and Brent Zimmerman. Throw in Irish and Rowe when they are not on the mound, and there are plenty of options. Rotating outfielders while maintaining some sense of stability will be a challenge for the coaching staff.
MVNC, which is ranked 27th in the NAIA preseason poll, is scheduled to play two doubleheaders before heading to Fort Myers, Florida, for the team's annual spring trip. While in Florida, the Cougars are slated to play 16 games against NAIA and NCAA Division II and III teams including the University of Missouri-St. Louis (#18 in NCAA II) and Ripon (Wis.) College (#19 in NCAA III). In addition, MVNC will face sister schools, MidAmerica Nazarene (Kan.) University and Olivet Nazarene (Ill.) University.
Upon returning from the Florida trip, the Cougars will focus their energies on the highly-competitive AMC which includes defending region champion, Ohio Dominican, and defending conference champion, Point Park (Pa.) College. Every conference doubleheader will be important with each of the twelve teams capable of contending for the AMC crown.
MVNC will also play non-conference games against the University of Findlay, Mount Union College, and Ohio Wesleyan University, ranked 15th in NCAA Division III. In addition, the Cougars will host the National Christian College Athletic Association East Region Tournament in May.