Cougars Look to Challenge for
AMC North Title in 2003
MOUNT VERNON, Ohio - After posting a 38-11 record last year and finishing one victory away from winning the NAIA Region IX Tournament for the third straight season, the Mount Vernon Nazarene University baseball team is ready to take the field again in 2003.
The new season will bring about a lot of changes and some uncertainty for the Cougars as only nine players return from last year's squad. However, head coach Keith Veale is ready for the challenge ahead of him.
"We have a number of question marks as we head into this year," said Veale, who enters his 14th season at MVNU having compiled a 438-196 mark to go with four conference titles and four National Christian College Athletic Association national titles. "We have had as big of a turnover in personnel as I can remember from one season to the next. That has left us thin in a number of areas. This means we will desperately need to stay healthy and have our proven talent play up to their capabilities."
Once again, the backbone of the Cougars' success will be determined by the MVNU pitching staff. Juniors Adam Rowe and Jon Barchus both return after stellar sophomore campaigns and successful summers in wooden bat leagues.
Rowe, a southpaw, posted a 10-0 record with 78 strikeouts and a 3.00 ERA last year as he was named to the NAIA All-American Second Team and the NCCAA All-American First Team. He was also named to the All-Star Team in the Northwoods League after tying for the league high with eight victories during the summer.
"Adam has matured into a frontline collegiate pitcher," said Veale. "He had a tremendous summer in the Northwoods League which followed up an exceptional sophomore season. He has the full package - an above average fastball, command of off-speed pitches, and great poise and competitiveness on the mound. He is our ace."
Barchus, a right-hander, went 3-2 on the mound with a 3.21 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 28 innings. As the Cougars' closer, he also led the team with seven saves, and he was named to the NCCAA All-American First Team and the NAIA Honorable Mention All-American Team. He was also the closer for the Athletes in Action team in the M.I.N.K. League this summer.
"Jon will move into the starting rotation this season," said Veale. "I expect him to push Adam and vise versa. We are looking to get more innings from him in a starter's role. I am confident that he will respond. He has an above average fastball and solid breaking stuff."
Heading into the season, junior Ryan Lucas, sophomore Derek Morey, and freshman Kyle Peters appear to be the other frontrunners for starting spots in the rotation. Lucas (RHP) comes to MVNU after playing a year each at Sinclair Community College and Tiffin University, while Morey (RHP) saw action in four games for the Cougars last year. Peters (RHP), who may play several positions for MVNU, is coming off a stellar senior year at Mason High School.
Junior Andy Dunn (RHP), sophomore Carl Langley (RHP), freshman Matt Byrdy (RHP), and junior Brian Barrish (RHP) will add depth to the bullpen and could provide much-needed innings in relief or starting games.
Handling the pitching staff and the catching duties will be junior Justin Clarey, who became only the fifth MVNU player to earn NAIA All-American First Team honors after batting .411 with 11 doubles, nine home runs, and 58 RBI last year.
"Defensively, we will build around Justin's leadership behind the plate," said Veale. "He has a steady demeanor in handling our staff, and he has an outstanding throwing arm. Offensively, he is a clutch performer who drives in runs. We are looking for another solid year from him."
Clarey will be backed up by freshmen Jeff Derr and Michael Grove. Both are making improvements in their defense, and they provide viable options behind the plate. Derr is also one of only two left-handed hitters on the roster.
The left side of the infield will be manned by senior Josh Sichina at third base and junior Dan Matheney at shortstop. Sichina, a four-year starter at third base, batted .299 with seven home runs and 45 RBI last year, while Matheney returns after hitting .314 with a team-high 50 runs scored. Both players were named to the AMC Honorable Mention list in 2002.
"Josh provides a level of consistency for us offensively and defensively," said Veale. "He is a great settling influence for our pitching staff, and he is a clutch RBI man. Dan is an exceptional defensive middle infielder. We want the ball hit to him. His enthusiasm is contagious, and he loves to play the game."
Peters and freshman Andrew Thompson will each see action at second base and possibly at shortstop. Both come to MVNU with great credentials and experience at shortstop at the high school level. "Kyle and Andrew have great work habits, pay attention to detail, and have no fear of competing," said Veale. "The will both see significant innings."
Langley and sophomore Ty Dendinger will split time at first base. Dendinger, who is moving over from third base, has the edge defensively, while Langley could also see some action at the designated hitter spot.
The outfield is wide open with only Rowe penciled into the starting lineup at this point when he is not on the mound. He batted .382 and developed into a good defensive outfielder as he saw action in 35 games. Sophomores Brent Zimmerman and Tim Martini return with a year of college experience under their belts, while Dunn, Peters, junior Nate Rutkowski, sophomore Shane Davis, and freshman Mark Caudill could all figure into the mix this spring.
"Again, there are a lot of questions going into the season," said Veale. "However, our pitching staff and defense up the middle should be our strengths. Our pitching staff has some real nice potential."
The Cougars, who are ranked 30th in the NAIA preseason poll, are scheduled to play a pair of doubleheaders before heading to Fort Myers, Florida, for 15 games in 10 days at the Gene Cusic Classic that includes three games against the University of St. Thomas (Minn.), ranked 15th in NCAA Division III. Then, MVNU will return north to take on the rest of the team's schedule that includes home and away doubleheaders against American Mideast Conference North Division opponents Geneva (Pa.) College, Walsh University, Malone College, Point Park (Pa.) College, and Saint Vincent (Pa.) College.
In addition to their AMC division games, the Cougars will also play Ohio Dominican University (ranked 15th in the NAIA), Tiffin University, Cedarville University, Ohio Wesleyan University (ranked 13th in NCAA Division III), Mount Union College, and the College of Wooster (ranked fifth in NCAA Division III).