ATLANTIC 10 CONFERENCE
By Bill Ballew
What a difference a great season makes. After going 13-11 in Atlantic 10 regular season play, head coach Dick Cooke’s team surprised the masses by winning the A-10 Conference Tournament to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. Instead of simply enjoying the moment, the Wildcats won the Chapel Hill Regional and then pushed Texas A&M to the limit before falling just short in the College Station Super Regional. That run–the best in Davidson’s long history–led to a $5.6 million endowment that will more than double the number of Wildcat baseball scholarships, from three to seven. The team also finished with an overall record of 35-26, including 12-12 on the road and 5-1 at neutral sites.
The Wildcats lost a handful of key contributors from last year but return a solid core that will keep things interesting at Wilson Field. The offense will be led by a pair of seniors in center fielder Cam Johnson (.275/.385/.458), who had nine home runs, 19 doubles and 37 RBIs last season, and second baseman Alec Acosta (.315/.381/.415), the co-MVP of the A-10 Championship who drove in 31 runs during the campaign. Two other returning starters are junior catcher Eric Jones (.322/.395/.469), the team’s second-leading hitter last season who also contributed nine home runs and 39 RBIs, and junior outfielder Justin Lebek (.282/.384/.445), who crushed seven home runs and contributed 44 RBIs.
Davidson’s top returning starting pitcher is senior lefthander Evan Roberts (4-1, 4.18 ERA). Roberts made 13 starts and eight relief appearances and displayed impressive control with a strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 51-to-18. Junior righthander Josh Hudson (3-3, 4.71 ERA) had 10 starts in 12 outings but also walked 37 batters in 49.2 innings. Junior righthander Austin Leonard (1-3, 3.86 ERA) was steady in 28 relief outings, while junior righthander Allen Barry (3-2, 3.44 ERA) started five times in 12 outings.
The Flyers changed pilots of their baseball program over the summer when Tony Vittorio stepped down after 17 years and Jayson King took over the controls. Prior to spending the 2017 season as an associate head coach at Army, King built Franklin Pierce into a perennial power at the Division II level. His teams were among the nation’s most aggressive on the base paths, a philosophy that is not expected to change as King moves up to the Division 1 ranks. Roster makeup will determine just how much the Flyers run, particularly in the early stages of King’s tenure, but the new head coach should push the envelope as he looks to build on Dayton’s 2017 record of 20-35, including 9-15 in the A-10.
King inherits a pitching staff that returns most of the arms from the 2017 team. Junior righthander Austin Cline (5-7, 5.82 ERA) led the Flyers with 14 starts last year while senior lefthander Mason Kutruff (3-5, 6.54 ERA) was second with 10 starts in 13 outings. Sophomore righthanders Tyler Jones (1-4, 5.68 ERA) and RJ Wagner (3-5, 6.62 ERA) made eight starts apiece while also working out of the bullpen. Other returning hurlers include senior righthander Danny Hentz (3.86 ERA), junior lefthander Tyler Henry (3-2, 4.27 ERA), sophomore righthander Josh Nixon (1-0, 5.40 ERA), senior lefthander Peter Rozman (2-1, 5.56 ERA), and sophomore righty Jordan Cox (0-3, 5.93 ERA).
Redshirt sophomore first baseman Brandon Smith (.291/.429/.576) powers the Flyer offense after leading the team with 12 home runs and 36 RBIs last spring. Junior outfielder Connor Echols (.261/.294/.372) ranked second in batting average among the returning hitters and drove in 23 runs in 2017. Junior infielder Pat Meehan (.233/.345/.291) stole 13 bases a year ago. A trio of sophomores in infielder Brantley Johnson (.242/.357/.305) and outfielders Tate Hagan (.255/.337/.370) and Brian Wood (.235/.325/.324) should also contribute in a larger capacity this season.
The Rams continue to make progress under seventh-year head coach Kevin Leighton. In 2017, Fordham went 27-24, including an 11-12 mark in the A-10, to finish with its first overall winning record since 2011. The pitching staff also established the program’s single-season record for the third straight year by striking out 414 batters. Despite losing pitcher Jimmy Murphy as an eighth-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles, the Rams welcome back numerous contributors from last year’s team as they look to earn their first NCAA tournament berth since 1998.
Fordham has two of its weekend rotation pitchers back in junior righthanders Reiss Knehr (3-3, 3.91 ERA) and Mike Cowell (1-4, 5.13 ERA). Knehr led the Rams with 86 strikeouts last season and ranked second to Murphy with 73.2 innings pitched. Sophomore righthander Kyle Martin (6-1, 2.76 ERA) was one of the top A-10 relievers last year while posting 45 strikeouts versus only seven walks. The same can be said of sophomore righthander Alvin Melendez (3-0, 0.76 ERA), who led the team with six saves in 17 appearances. Junior righthander Anthony DeMeglio (0-1, 2.88 ERA) and sophomore righty Brandon Martin (4-1, 3.90 ERA) are other key returners to a staff that posted a 3.86 ERA in 2017.
The Rams lost their top three hitters from a year ago and will be looking for sophomore outfielders Jake Baker (.291/.385/.316) and Billy Godrick (.275/.376/.288) to lead the offense. Junior catcher Justin Bardwell (.258/.333/.371) is the top returning run producer after notching 26 RBIs with the help of 13 doubles a year ago. Junior first baseman Brian Goulard (.240/.319/.356) and sophomore infielder Matt Tarabek (.170/.221/.189) also return but need to be more consistent to see their names regularly on the lineup card.
GEORGE MASON PATRIOTS
Bill Brown is in his 37th season as the head coach of his alma mater and has guided the Patriots to seven NCAA tournament appearances, two Colonial Athletic Association championships, and the A-10 title in 2014, which was George Mason’s first campaign in the league. Last year the Patriots went 26-33 overall but put together a solid showing in the A-10 by going 13-11 and winning their first game in the conference tournament. Brown welcomes back most of his offense from a year ago, which will be a major factor if the program is to return to post-season play in 2018.
The Patriot offense is expected to feature five seniors, including first baseman Tyler Nelin (.296/.405/.514). Nelin is projected to be a top candidate for A-10 Player of the Year this spring after he led the team with 15 doubles, 10 home runs and 111 total bases last season. Senior first baseman/designated hitter Trevor Kelly (.300/.355/.455) also provides power after clubbing seven home runs and a team-high 56 RBIs last spring. Senior left fielder Brady Acker (.266/.361/.414) added seven home runs and 22 RBIs, redshirt senior outfielder Frank Sturek (.239/.357/.327) led the team with 13 stolen bases, and senior shortstop Michael Smith (.248/.384/.338) was second on the team with 12 doubles. Sophomore outfielder Logan Driscoll (.323/.413/.479) had the team’s highest batting average in 2017 and was third with 38 RBIs. Junior infielders Greg Popatak (.230/.337/.416), who is coming off a season with six homers and 27 RBIs, and Alejandro Aponte (.228/.297/.284) also return.
The pitching depth is a different story than the offense. The Patriots return two of their top three starters from a year ago but both will need to be more consistent in order for George Mason to challenge for the A-10 title. Righthander Zach Mort (3-7, 5.71 ERA) and lefthander Brian Marconi (7-5, 5.06 ERA) worked 80 or more innings last year and have proven to be durable. The bullpen will need solid encore performances from senior righthander Ryan Ricci (2-0, 2.86 ERA), sophomore righthander Jared DiCesare (2-4, 3.55 ERA, 4 saves), and redshirt junior righthander Bryce Nightengale (2-4, 6.95), who started eight times in 15 appearances last spring.
GEORGE WASHINGTON COLONELS
The Colonels went 31-27 last year, including a 14-10 record in the A-10. The 31 victories are the 10th-highest win total in program history and marked the second time in three seasons George Washington has notched at least 30 triumphs and the third consecutive campaign GWU earned a berth in the A-10 Tournament. The Colonials have made the NCAA tournament seven times, including three straight from 1957-59, but only four occasions since 1979, the last coming in 2002 in the Winston-Salem Regional. Head coach Gregg Ritchie has brought consistency to the Washington, D.C., campus in his first five seasons and expects to challenge for conference supremacy in 2018.
Pitching projects to the Colonels’ strength in 2018. Two hurlers from last year’s weekend rotation return in sophomore righthander Elliott Raimo (8-3, 3.20 ERA) and senior righthander Brady Renner (8-5, 3.42 ERA). Raimo was named to the ABCA/Rawlings All-East Region First Team as well as the A-10 All-Rookie team after allowing only 70 hits in a team-high 90 innings. Junior righthander Will Kobos (4-1, 1.99 ERA, 3 saves) also garnered ABCA/Rawlings All-Region First Team accolades and was named to the A-10 All-Academic Team. Fortifying the bullpen are senior righthander Tyler Swiggart (2-2, 3.31 ERA), senior lefthander Kevin Hodgson (1-0, 4.67 ERA) and sophomore righthander Jaret Edwards (2-2, 4.91 ERA).
The Colonials lost three of their top five hitters from a year ago. Senior second baseman Robbie Metz (.339/.379/.424) was second on the team in batting average and first with three triples, which led to his receiving A-10 All-Conference Second Team recognition. Sophomore shortstop Nate Fassnacht (332/.407/.453) put together a stellar collegiate debut and earned a spot on the A-10 All-Rookie Team after hitting five home runs with 29 RBIs. Senior outfielder Mark Osis (.282/.372/.372) tied for the team lead with 15 doubles and drove in 25 runs. Senior catcher Brandon Chapman (.234/.326/.324) will help guide the pitching staff once again.
LA SALLE EXPLORERS
After winning only 10 games in 51 outings last year, including a 4-20 record in the Atlantic 10, La Salle fired Mike Lake and hired former Clemson All-American David Miller as the Explorers’ head coach. Miller arrives from William Penn Charter School, where he guided the Quakers to a 26-2 record and a USA Today Super 25 ranking in 2017. His success in developing players and building a program is what impressed the school’s brass in making Miller the Explorers’ 10th head coach all-time.
Miller will have his work cut out for him. He inherits an Explorer team that had difficulty finding any offensive output last season. The team’s on-base percentage was a paltry .301, the third-worst in Division 1. La Salle hit at a .229 clip (290th out of 295 D1 teams), and its slugging percentage was .325 (287th). That combination led to only 162 runs scored (289th).
On the positive side, La Salle returns its top six hitters from a year ago, led by senior shortstop Austin Constantini (.304/.380/.357), who also topped the team with 21 walks, six steals and a .976 fielding percentage. Junior first baseman Ben Faso (.290/.329/.446) provided most of the Explorers’ pop with a team-high six home runs and 26 RBIs. Junior infielder Kevin McGowan (.283/.344/.372) and senior right fielder Rafael Amanau (.252/.326/.381) should continue to see extensive activity, while sophomore left fielder Zach Wright (.226/.315/.320) and junior outfielder Brian Tagoe (.220/.306/.340) need to produce more consistently to merit playing time.
The pitching staff, which ranked 209th nationally with a 5.56 ERA, received little support from its defense, which finished 269th in fielding percentage at .956. The top returning starter is sophomore righthander Matt Holt (2-3, 3.97 ERA). Junior righthanders Cj Pruitt (0-7, 5.70 ERA) and Mike Anthony (0-5, 5.82 ERA) started nine and seven games, respectively, last year. Constantini, the Explorers’ shortstop, also led La Salle with five saves while registering an ERA of 2.16 as the team’s closer.
The Minutemen struggled last year by going 8-16 in the A-10 and 15-32 overall. UMass’ offense was the biggest culprit by ranking 284th in the D1 ranks with a .241 batting average and 286th with a .325 slugging percentage. Mike Stone, who had been head coach since 1988, handed the baton in late May 2017 to Matt Reynolds, a former infielder and captain for the Minutemen. Reynolds has quite the challenge ahead of him. UMass has reached the A-10 Tournament only twice since 2004 and has won at least 20 games only once (2012) since the last time the program finished above .500, which was 27-26 in 2009.
Junior first baseman Cooper Mrowka (.292/.393/.470) is back in the lineup after leading the Minutemen with six home runs and posting 22 RBIs a year ago. Junior shortstop Ryan Lever (.275/.371/.421) captains the infield and provides some pop that included four homers and 29 RBIs in 2017. Sophomore outfielder Nolan Kessinger (.301/.389/.379) was second on the team in batting average as well as doubles with 10. Greater contributions from senior outfielder Brett Evangelista (.222/.305/.257) and junior third baseman Alec Norton (.200/.289/.300) would make the offense more potent.
While the pitching was better than the hitting last year, the Minutemen need to improve upon last year’s team ERA of 5.28 ERA in order to compete in the A-10. UMass has an excellent Friday night starter in junior righthander Justin Lasko (3-6, 3.69 ERA), who had 62 strikeouts in 83 innings last year. Sophomore lefthander Brooks Knapek (2-3, 3.86 ERA) showed impressive potential during his freshman campaign while making eight starts. Sophomore righthander Christian Rosati (1-2, 4.50 ERA) led the Minutemen with 19 appearances and three saves. Junior righthander Casey Aubin (1-3, 6.15 ERA) is the other pitcher with significant experience after working 45.1 innings last year in 14 games, including four starts.
RHODE ISLAND RAMS
Raphael Cerrato has turned the Rams into a force in the A-10. After putting together an impressive showing as interim head coach in 2015, Cerrato led Rhode Island an 18-6 mark and the program’s first outright regular-season conference title since 2006. The Rams proceeded to win the A-10 Tournament and earn their second appearance an NCAA Regional, where they debuted by defeating South Carolina. Last year Rhody was 17-6 in the A-10 (good for second place) and 31-22 overall but won only once in three tries in the A-10 Tournament.
The 2018 Rams will be significantly different than last year’s model but Cerrato believes the pieces are in place to have success, particularly if the team is better at making contact and stealing bases. Although much of the power from last spring’s team is gone, Rhode Island welcomes back its top hitter in senior center fielder Jordan Powell (.352/.403/.427). Redshirt junior infielder Laurence Hill (.193/.256/.241) missed about half of last season due to injuries but is considered to be a potential key contributor. Sophomore catcher Sonny Ulliana (.250/.290/.350) and senior Mike Foley (.243/.348/.375) are back, with Foley providing four homers and 21 RBIs last year. Junior infielders Brett McManus (.243/.348/.375) and Kevin Heiss (.236/.359/.236) could contribute along with a plethora of freshmen, including outfielder Austin White, first baseman Xavier Vargas, infielder Matt Daller, and redshirt freshman outfielder Max Mircovich.
On the mound, lefthander Tyler Wilson (1-1, 5.82 ERA) had his 2017 season marred by injury after he garnered A-10 Pitcher of the Year honors in 2015 and 2016. Redshirt senior righthander Matt Murphy (5-4, 3.96 ERA) led the Rams last year with 15 starts, while sophomore righthander Vitaly Jangois (7-1, 2.23 ERA) was exceptional in 15 outings, including nine starts, to earn Freshman All-American honors. Senior righthander Nick Johnson (3-3, 4.31 ERA) has versatility after starting 10 times in 16 outings as a junior. Redshirt senior righthander Tyler Barss (0-3, 1.38 ERA) continues to lock down the closer role after saving 11 games in 24 appearances last year.
The Spiders had one of the worst seasons in program history in 2017. Richmond finished in 12th place in the A-10 with a 6-17 record and was 17-36 overall, which marks the Spiders’ lowest win total since they went 14-22 in 1984. Currently in his fifth season as head coach, Tracy Woodson guided the team to back-to-back 28-win seasons in 2015-16. According to Woodson, the team needs to make improvements on the mound, and showed signs of upgrading last year’s team ERA of 6.04 during fall practice under new pitching coach R.J. Thomas.
Richmond returns its top two starters from last year in junior righthander Layne Looney (3-6, 3.21 ERA) and redshirt senior righthander Robbie Baker (3-8, 5.05 ERA). Looney had 65 strikeouts in 61.2 innings and allowed only 56 hits but also issued 50 walks and hit three batters. Baker led the team with 82 innings pitched and struck out 76 batters. Senior righthander Daniel Brumbaugh (3-2, 4.55 ERA) pitched well for much of the season, as did sophomore lefthander Jacob Weis (1-1, 4.15 ERA). Righthanders Peter Bovenzi (0-1, 5.29 ERA) and Aaron Winkler (1-1, 6.00 ERA) pitched in 20 and 21 games, respectively.
The Spiders return their top hitter from last year in senior shortstop Vinny Capra (.355/.420/.488). Capra tied for first on the team with 14 doubles and tied for second with four home runs while driving in 19 runs. In addition to pitching, Brumbaugh (.332/.402/.485) was third in batting average and second with 37 RBIs. Junior catcher Kyle Schmidt (.313/.355/.402) added 10 doubles and 12 RBIs, and redshirt junior DJ Lee (.279/.364/.380) had 24 RBIs and a team-high 18 stolen bases in 19 attempts. Included among the freshmen who could contribute are two-way player Jordan Schulefand, infielder Davis Payne, outfielder Anthony Forte, and utility player Sage Bruhl.
SAINT BONAVENTURE BONNIES
The Bonnies enjoyed one of their finest seasons in 2017 by winning 11 of 13 A-10 games at one point and finishing the campaign with a conference mark of 15-8 (good for third place) and 26-22 overall. Head coach Larry Sudbrook notched his 300th A-10 victory in his career and was named the A-10 Coach of the Year for the third time. Six St. Bonaventure players received all-conference honors and three were drafted to continue their careers in professional baseball.
Unfortunately, that was then for the Bonnies. The 2018 season will be different, one of tremendous opportunity for much of the St. Bonaventure roster. Sudbrook has only two starters back. Senior left fielder Ryan MacCarrick (.284/.345/.421) was third on last year’s team in batting average and tied for second with six home runs while driving in 22. Senior right fielder David Vaccaro (.273/.321/.420) had five home runs and 31 RBIs and was nine-for-nine in stolen base attempts. Junior outfielder Sam Fuller (.156/.229/.250) is the only other returner with any significant starting experience after opening nine of the 21 games he played last year. Sudbrook is likely to look to a couple of junior college transfers to fill voids, including infielders Mike Magnanti (Finger Lakes Community College) and Brandon Henshaw (Genesee Community College).
The Bonnies have two of their weekend starters back in senior righthander Brandon Schlimm (1-4, 4.50 ERA) and sophomore righthander Casey Vincent (2-4, 4.99 ERA). Schlimm started 11 of his 12 games and struck out 40 batters in 48 innings. Vincent was second on last year’s team with 70.1 innings pitched while starting 12 of 13 appearances but issued 40 walks to go with 51 strikeouts. Sophomore lefthander Donnie Moffat (3-1, 3.96 ERA) was solid out of the bullpen and recorded a team-high four saves. Redshirt sophomore righthander Brian Pulli (1-0, 2.45 ERA) pitched well despite throwing only 14.2 innings. Redshirt sophomore righthander James Wetter (2-1, 3.65 ERA) and sophomore lefthander Donovan Moffat (2-3, 3.96 ERA) should see their roles increase after throwing 25 innings apiece last year. Newcomers will contribute as well, with freshman righthander Tyler Germanowski having solid potential.
SAINT JOSEPH’S HAWKS
The Hawks split their 24 games in the Atlantic 10 last year but went 9-13 outside of league play for an overall record of 21-25. On the positive side, head coach Fritz Hamburg’s team overcame an 0-10 start to salvage the season and finish in eighth place the A-10. Currently in his 10th season at the Hawks’ dugout helm, Hamburg is the winningest coach in program history. His teams have won at least 20 games in seven consecutive campaigns and have reached double digits in victories in A-10 play for eight straight seasons.
St. Joseph’s graduated 11 seniors and saw junior catcher Deon Stafford get drafted in the fifth round by Pittsburgh last June. The Hawks have four returning players with starting experience, led by a trio of seniors on the infield. Shortstop Matt Maul (.328/.375/.373) led the club in batting average and stolen bases (10) in 2017 while also stroking a team-high 58 hits. The corners feature first baseman Dominic Cuoci (.261/.318/.497), who led the Hawks with 10 home runs and tied for the top spot with 31 RBIs, and third baseman Marc Giacalone (.252/.375/.311). Right fielder Charlie Concannon (.273/.354/.448) contributed six home runs and 31 RBIs. Sophomore James McConnon (.275/.370/.425) started 10 games behind the plate last year and is the leading candidate to be the first-string catcher. Center fielder Brendan Hueth, infielder Liam Bendo and two-way player Cole Stetzar are freshmen who could earn playing time this spring.
St. Joseph’s returns all three weekend starters from a year ago. Junior righthander Tim Brennan (4-4, 2.85 ERA) is back as the Hawks’ Friday night starter after he registered 60 strikeouts versus only 11 walks in 2017. Junior lefthander Lucas Rollins (2-1, 3.33 ERA) should handle the Saturday starting duties, while senior righthander Justin Aungst (2-3, 5.22 ERA) rounds out the rotation. Righthander Ryan Kelly, a graduate student, also returns after earning Second Team All A-10 honors in 2016 before missing last season due to injury. Sophomore righthander Jordan DiValerio (1-2, 3.38 ERA) and freshmen Ryan Devine and Jose Martinez are expected to fill significant roles in 2018.
SAINT LOUIS BILLIKENS
Head coach Darin Hendrickson has brought impressive consistency to the St. Louis program over the past 10 years. The Billikens reached the NCAA Tournament in 2010 and 2013 and have won at least 34 games in five of the last six seasons. SLU also notched a school-record 41 wins in 2012 and 2013, won the Atlantic 10 Tournament title in 2010 and 2013, and is coming off a 2017 season in which the team went 35-22 overall and 12-10 in conference play.
There is hope that the Billikens can challenge the school’s single-season victory total in 2018 thanks to the return of most of their starting lineup from a year ago. Senior catcher James Morisano (.316/.379/.578) led SLU in batting average and home runs (12) while falling one shy of the team lead with 37 RBIs. Alex King (.294/.376/.503), the starting shortstop since his freshman year, added eight homers and 33 RBIs. Seniors are also prominent at other positions, including first baseman Nick Reeser (.303/.400/.373), outfielder Parker Sniatynski (.299/.378/.444), third baseman Carter Hanford (.286/.393/.429) and center fielder Aaron Case (.269/.384/.448). Junior Cole Dubet (.274/.355/.384) is projected to return as the starter at second base. Outfielder Corrigan Bartlett could move into the starting lineup in his first season after transferring from Barton College.
The Billikens also have a strong group of returning pitchers, led by righthander Miller Hogan (8-3, 2.70 ERA). Hogan had a solid freshman year by going 3-8 with a 3.27 ERA in 14 starts before taking an even bigger step last spring and emerging as one of the most consistent starting pitchers in the collegiate ranks. He was taken in the 32nd round by Milwaukee last June as a draft-eligible sophomore but elected to return to school. SLU also has righthander Jackson Wark (5-5, 4.66 ERA), who made 14 starts in 18 outings, and reliever Ryan Lefner (0-5, 4.13 ERA), who saved 14 games in 23 appearances last year. Righthander Cody Luther, a transfer from Cuesta College in California, and Connor Lehman, who missed last season due to Tommy John surgery, are expected to pitch meaningful innings this spring.
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH RAMS
The Rams were on the verge of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season in 2017 before falling twice to Davidson in the final two contests of the Atlantic 10 Tournament. After advancing to the Super Regionals in 2015 and winning 38 games in 2016, head coach Shawn Stiffler guided his team to a 35-22 overall record last year and first place during the regular season by a dominant league mark of 19-5. Despite losing several key pieces from last year’s team, Stiffler feels confident a return to post-season play can be achieved in 2018 provided a handful of newcomers take advantage of their opportunities.
The Rams’ top returner is sophomore shortstop Paul Witt (.361/.429/.425), who was second on the team in batting average and third with 36 RBIs. Junior second baseman Zac Ching (.286/.360/.391) was second on the Rams with 40 RBIs. Two other infielders–sophomore Steve Carpenter (.287/.430/.396) and senior Mitchel Lacey (.300/.389/.454)–are back after both players saw action in 38 contests last year.
VCU should be good on Friday nights with the return of senior righthander Sean Thompson (7-4, 3.46 ERA), who struck out 77 batters and limited opponents to a .232 average last year. Junior righthander Michael Dailey (5-3, 4.61 ERA) is also back after matching Thompson with 15 starts in 2017. Junior righthander Benjamin Dum (3-1, 3.83 ERA) was impressive last season while relieving in 23 of his 24 outings. Sophomore righthander Connor Gillispie (1-2, 4.31 ERA) opened eyes as a freshman by fanning 38 batters in 31.1 innings. A pair of former Washington State pitchers–righthanders Mac McCarty and Curtis Bafus–could see activity on the mound after transferring from Pierce Community College and Everett Community College, respectively.