Despite what a foot of snow on the ground may indicate, it’s baseball season.
The Chargers will travel to Johnson City, Tennessee, this weekend to open their season with a four-game set against former GLIAC foe Saginaw Valley.
After graduating only two seniors from last year’s squad, Hillsdale brings an experienced group to its first season in the G‑MAC. Seniors pitcher Phil Carey and outfielder Ryan O’Hearn said this has brought both role clarity and confidence to the team.
This veteran squad, however, will be faced with an exceptionally tough schedule.
“We’re excited to get started, and it doesn’t start slow, so we’re not going to be able to start slow,” head coach Eric Theisen said of a non-conference schedule, which features six teams which received votes for a pre-season national top-20 ranking.
According to Thiesen, this is exactly the way the Chargers want it to be.
“We scheduled it this way on purpose because we think we’ve got that level of talent,” he said. “And we’re looking at it like we’re their test.”
Preparing for these kinds of tests in Michigan during January and February comes with its own challenges. In fact, the team has only been able to practice outside once all spring. Despite this, Theisen said pitchers have worked their way near to 100-pitch conditioning mark and that hitters have seen at least 30 live plate appearances. In the end, he said the ability to come out of the snow and play good baseball comes down to athleticism, and he believes pitching and bats can get the team past any potential cobwebs.
“The way we’re built, and our identity, the offense should be strong enough to outweigh that setback,” he said. “And we think we have good enough athletes, to be honest, that it’s like riding a bike.”
When Thiesen refers to a “good offense,” he means it. The Chargers averaged almost 6.5 runs per game last season while swatting 50 home runs. Of those 50 long balls, 38 return to the lineup, including 17 from junior catcher Steven Ring, who led the GLIAC last season.
The offense, however, is not one dimensional. The Chargers also bring back the 2017 GLIAC steals leader in O’Hearn, who swiped 23 bags last season, and junior infielder Colin Boerst, who took 16 bags of his own last year, which tied for fourth in the GLIAC.
“We have a very threatening offense in many ways,” Theisen said. “We will have four or five guys in at a time with green lights on the bases, along with having four or five guys at one time that can put the ball over the fence and cause some damage. That combination of skills in the lineup make it very dangerous.”
Boerst, who hit 10 home runs last season, also adds to the team’s power potential, along with junior infielder Dylan Lottinville, who hit six home runs in 2017 and also won the Chargers’ homecoming home run derby.
Several other heavy 2017 offensive contributors return to the field for the Chargers this season. Carey said other teams should certainly take note when Hillsdale comes to town.
“They’re not going to want to pitch to us,” he said. “I’ll tell you straight up, they’ve hit everything I’ve been throwing, so it’ll be a sad day for other teams if they’re off even a little bit on the mound.”
While the offense has been the identity of Hillsdale baseball in recent years, the strength of the pitching should not be overlooked.
“We’ve got depth on the mound,” Theisen said. “We’ve got more depth on the mound than we’ve had in a long time.”
Theisen said the pitchers returned to campus a week and a half early this spring, after starting the 2017 season slow in regards to stamina. He said this paid off, resulting in pitchers ready to take on 100 pitches in their first starts and guys topping out their velocity.
Theisen said he expects to see Carey and senior Will Kruse, along with sophomores Andrew Verbrugge and Kolton Rominski start games in the opening weekend, but the contribution will go far beyond that.
According to Theisen, the first goal the team has set its sights on is a regional berth in the NCAA tournament.
“Everybody knows we’re playing to get a shot at the regional. That’s the first step of the national tournament. You don’t have a chance to win a national championship unless you make the regional,” he said. “So, get to the regional, and play your heart out — that’s the goal.”
Theisen added that the team hopes to be in a position for an at-large berth by winning 30 – 35 games.
“We’ve done the math, and we know how that’s going to work out, and shoot, if we win a conference championship on accident along the way that’s great,” he said.
The Chargers know that non-conference results will play a large part in putting themselves in that position.
“I told our guys the other day in a text, we will establish ourselves as a regional and national contender in the first month of the season or we won’t,” Theisen said. “That first month…by the end of that pre-conference ‘warm-up’ we’ll know how good we are. It won’t be a question.”
O’Hearn said the Chargers are just excited for the opportunity.
“We don’t play until the spring, so we’ve been training since August, and it all leads up to this weekend,” he said. “We’ve been cooped up inside, which is not natural for a baseball player. We’re supposed to be outside; not in a barn or the Biermann Center, so we’re super excited. It seems like everyone is amped up, because we know what is coming up here soon.”