Last year, the Hillsdale College baseball team had its best season in program history, advancing to its first ever NCAA tournament and finishing with a record of 32-24. The Chargers, however, will look strikingly different this season, having lost seven of ten starters from last year’s squad.
The new-look Chargers will open up their season in Hendersonville, Tennesee, where they will face future GMAC foe Alderson-Broaddus in doubleheaders on both Saturday and Sunday.
According to fourth-year head coach Eric Theisen — 2016 GLIAC Coach of the Year — last year’s success doesn’t mean anything coming into this season. He added that they were prepared to lose last year’s large senior class.
“That is why we brought this sophomore class in,” he said. “We brought that class in to experience last year and learn from last year’s seniors, so that they would be ready to grab the reigns this year.”
He said he believes his guys are excited for a chance to prove themselves and fill fight for now-open starting positions.
Junior centerfielder and team captain Ryan O’Hearn echoed this sentiment, and said the team recognizes that its build varies from last year’s.
“We understand that we’re a different team this year and bring different qualities,” he said. “We think of ourselves as a little bit of a faster team this year and not as much of power-hitting team.”
When O’Hearn refers to last year’s team as a power hitting team, he means a team which hit a GLIAC-leading 68 home runs.
For Theisen, however, this year’s team is a chance to explore more diversity in the lineup.
“We’re excited to have some options that we maybe haven’t had in the past,” Theisen said. “We’ve got some speed options, some power options, some righty options, some lefty options, so it’s going to be fun to play around with those.”
The Chargers will start the season with nearly a full month of non-conference games. Theisen said they will, of course, do anything to win the games, but will also use them to test some of the various options.
“It will give us some opportunities to figure out which combinations give us the best opportunity to win,” he said.
Among the most recent graduates are pitcher and first baseman Chris McDonald and outfielder Luke Ortel, both of whom earned All-American honors last season. In addition, Ortel also won GLIAC Player of the Year, tallying more hits than any other collegiate player, at any level.
Assistant coach Gordie Theisen — father of Eric Theisen — said the expectations haven’t changed, just because they lost some guys.
The team will look to junior second baseman Alex Waltz to fill much of the offensive gap, after starting every game last season, while hitting .322. Waltz said he welcomes the opportunity with open arms.
“Last year, I knew my role was to simply get on base, to give the power hitters a chance to score me. But this season, I need to step up and look for RBI’s,” Waltz said.
Junior captain Will Kruse will pitch the Charger’s opening game, after starting 14 games last season. This makes Kruse the only returning pitcher who started more than 10 games last season, although sophomore Chris Stewart and junior Phil Carey neared the mark, starting nine and seven games, respectively.
This season will be the final season for the Chargers in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, before moving to the Great Midwest Athletic Conference next year. O’Hearn said this gives the team a little bit of extra fire in the belly to capture its first-ever GLIAC title.
The first month of the season will be especially grueling for Hillsdale, as it travels to Tennessee, Kentucky, southern Illinois, and West Virginia.
O’Hearn said the key to staying sane during the rat-race is understanding that any free-time can be used as homework time, be it on the bus or in the hotels. He added that after all of the work done on the football field and in the cages, getting out and playing a real game makes it all worth it.
The Chargers will receive a huge spark to the lineup with the eventual return of senior pitcher and first baseman Ethan Wiskur, who broke his hand in the final Charger’s football game of the season. Last season, Wiskur ranked third on the team in batting average, hitting .376. Eric Theisen said Wiskur is week-to-week, but they hope to have the offensive juggernaut back by conference play.
According to O’Hearn, Eric Theisen’s message all offseason and preseason has been to play loose, play hard, and play with passion.
“He has preached to ‘play aggressive and to have fun,’” O’Hearn said. “He is always kind of harping that he wants us to ‘play sandlot ball.’ Don’t think too much and go out there and play the game that you know how to play.”