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(Photo: Hillsdale College Ath­letics)

In college baseball, no matter how a season ends, Feb­ruary brings a clean slate and a fresh start. For the Hillsdale College Chargers, last season ended with a bang, as the Chargers rode an impressive post­season run to the school’s first con­ference cham­pi­onship in 58 years. As head coach Eric Theisen looks forward to 2019, however, his focus is only on winning another title.

“The guys are over last year,” Theisen said. “Now they’re focused on making some new noise.”

As the Chargers look to defend their title, they enter 2019 facing a new set of chal­lenges. The starting rotation will look markedly dif­ferent as they only return one starter from last year’s three-deep rotation. Hillsdale also grad­uated more than one-third of last year’s offensive pro­duction.

These factors may figure into why a panel of G-MAC coaches has the Chargers in third in the pre­season coaches poll. Ohio Dominican Uni­versity is slotted in the top spot, with Ken­tucky Wes­leyan College, the team Hillsdale defeated in the finals of last year’s G-MAC tour­nament, in second.

In spite of these chal­lenges, Theisen is con­fident in his team’s ability to step up.

“Our goal is to win the regional,” Theisen said. “We have the talent, we have the tools. Every weekend we need to prove we’re better than the team we’re playing, and that starts this weekend.”

The Chargers have a lot to work with in all areas of the game. On the mound, junior Andrew Ver­brugge will look to build off last year’s breakout per­for­mance. Ver­brugge led the team last year with a 2.83 earned run average and figures to be the ace in Theisen’s rotation.

While Ver­brugge is the game one starter, Theisen is opti­mistic about the Hillsdale’s depth behind him, both in the rotation and out of the bullpen.

“We’re con­fident in our staff,” Theisen said. “We have good options, and some freshman pitchers that can really perform. We have 15 healthy arms for the first time since I’ve been here, and the jobs are up to be won.”

Junior Kolton Rominski will step into a starting role after a solid sophomore year in which he fin­ished with a 5 – 3 record and a 3.97 ERA. After a dom­inant per­for­mance in last year’s con­ference cham­pi­onship game, senior Joe Hamrick also plays in to the dis­cussion.

Out of the bullpen, sophomore David Toth returns after recording 10 saves in his freshman cam­paign and holding opposing hitters to just a .233 batting average. A con­sistent and reliable closer is a high-pri­ority piece for any baseball team, and Toth seems poised to make a sig­nif­icant impact.

“Toth def­i­nitely has the ability to be one of the best relief pitchers in the con­ference this year,” Theisen said.

Hillsdale enters 2019 with one of the most potent offenses in the G-MAC. On top of the batting order is junior shortstop Jake Hoover. Hoover had a breakout year in 2018, hitting .320 with 15 steals and demon­strating excellent plate dis­ci­pline.

The meat of the Chargers’ order is anchored by the most suc­cessful senior class in school history. Senior Colin Boerst, a fourth-year starter in right field, will be a key for Hillsdale in the out­field. Boerst’s pro­duction last year was limited due to injury, but the veteran is a well-rounded player that should con­tribute.

Senior catcher Steven Ring, who holds single-season school records for home runs and runs batted in, will hit third. Ring will be in the lineup this weekend against Wayne State Uni­versity, but will not suit up behind the plate since he’s recov­ering from a shoulder surgery in the off­season. Senior catcher Chris Ack­erman will likely get the nod to start defen­sively.

Behind Ring is senior first baseman Dylan Lot­tinville, who pro­vides con­sistent power from the cleanup spot. Lot­tinville hit .288 last season with 33 RBIs.

Another piece in the Chargers’ offensive arsenal is out­fielder Dante Toppi. In 2018, Toppi had nine home runs and 14 stolen bases, and pos­sesses a rare blend of power and speed. This year, Toppi will make the switch from left to center field, and will hit fifth.

Hillsdale travels to Johnson City, Ten­nessee to kick off its season with a three-game series against Wayne State Uni­versity. The Chargers will look to get on the field and answer one of their biggest con­cerns: defense.

“Because of the weather, the first time we’re going to step onto a baseball field is this weekend,” Theisen said. “The question mark this time of year is always defense. We have the talent, we have the tools, we just haven’t been able to practice it as much as other things.”

The series begins Sat­urday at 1 p.m., with the second game fol­lowing imme­di­ately afterward at 3 p.m. The series will con­clude with game three at noon on Sunday.