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.