Pioneers expect successful baseball campaign in 2010

Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 2:24 am

The 2009 Grinnell College Baseball season was one to remember. After winning 22 games (a single-season school record), earning a trip to the Midwest Conference Playoffs, and graduating six seniors that started a combined 358 games (30 from the mound), it doesn’t figure to get much better for the Pioneers.

That is wrong, though. With a roster of 39 players, including 10 seniors, the talent, depth, and commitment are there for the lone Iowa representative in the MWC to make a serious run at the conference championship and beyond. Head coach Tim Hollibaugh states this quite plainly, “Our No. 1 goal is to win the conference tournament. Everything we’ve done as a team since last May is focused on accomplishing that goal. And we will continue to work towards a MWC Championship each day forward.”

Heading into his 16th season as the Grinnell skipper, Hollibaugh notes that “The obvious strength of this team is the offensive firepower. But we spend most of our time and energy on the catch-and-throw aspect of the game and we take great pride in our team fielding percentage.” The Pioneers finished with a .962 team fielding percentage, good for 30th-best in Division III after having a .970-plus fielding percentage for most of the season reaching as high as second in DIII. “We struggled a little bit defensively down the stretch last spring, and it is our job as coaches to ensure that does not happen again,” Hollibaugh said.

The 2010 Pioneer schedule sports the required 12 divisional conference games (eight home, eight road) as well as a two-week Spring Break trip to Fort Pierce, Fla., to play a variety of DIII schools, mostly from the East coast. The Florida trip is preceded by a long weekend in Fulton, Missouri to open the season against Westminster College and Central College on March 6 and 7. The remaining non-conference schedule might provide the Pioneers the toughest tests they will see all season long, as they face four of the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Coming to North Diamond will be Cornell, Coe, Simpson, and Wartburg while Grinnell will travel to Cornell, Simpson and Wartburg throughout the spring.

Here is a breakdown of the team:

PITCHING

With the graduation of Gary Kahn (All-MWC performer) and Rick Berdelle (2008 MWC South Pitcher of the Year), the 2010 pitching staff will be emblematic of the young talent Hollibaugh has recruited to Grinnell. Leading the rotation will likely be lefty Ryan Harris ’10 (6-2, 3.26 ERA in ’09). The senior from St. Louis was perhaps the best pitcher on the roster at the beginning of last season and he is expected to help set the tone for the rest of the Pioneer arms. For that second weekend starter, the competition is still ongoing. Three sophomores figure to be competing amongst themselves for this important role. Right-hander and sidearm slinger Drew Myers ’12 showed promise after putting out plenty of proverbial fires late last spring and he finished with a 5.65 ERA in 11 appearances on the bump. Right-handed closer Ben Pope ’12 might just be the best of the three super sophs. Pope led the team with 15 appearances, where he posted a 2.62 ERA and struck out 26 in 24 innings while only walking nine.

The rest of the pitching staff contains plenty of variety, with three seniors Marshall Chavez ‘10, Chad Christoff ‘10, and David Platt ’10 all figuring to play an important role for the success of the 2010 Pioneers. Chavez is another potential starter, but all three have experience as relievers and their maturity will go a long way in helping to develop the rest of the young staff.

Sophomore Chris Peconga ’12 brings a ton of potential to the staff, as well. The 2013 recruiting class is ripe with plenty of pitching and these freshmen will all compete immediately for innings. Grinnell High School graduate Will Bennett ’13 moves up the road and brings his 22 career high school wins (a school record) with him. Whitney Young HS in Chicago provided the Pioneers with two outstanding young arms in righty Jason Ormond ’13 (45K::9BB his senior year) and southpaw Andrew Platt ’13 (4-0 in 2009). Minnesota native and submarining righty Chris Eckberg ’13 brings a different dimension to the Grinnell staff and should befuddle hitters with his unique delivery and velocity.

With plenty of senior experience and young talent, the 2010 Pioneer pitching staff figures to be one of the best ever in the history of the school.

CATCHING

Despite losing two catchers to graduation, Mark Wilcox (78 career starts) and Jim Malewitz (36 starts and 2008 MWC All-Conference) the Pioneers figure to be set behind the plate with the return of Mike Nodzenski ’12. After being named South Division Co-Player of the Year in 2009, Nodzenski takes over as the primary catcher after spending most of the past spring as the designated hitter against conference opponents. His impressive numbers throughout the entire season (.347/.417/.653 with 8 HR and 36 RBI) are only overshadowed by his production versus conference opponents (.426/.484/.926 with 7 HR in only 54 AB). Nodzenski will be challenged with handling and leading the pitching staff through the contentious Midwest Conference lineups, but after throwing out 30 percent of potential base-runners without committing an error in 2009, he has the potential to be one of the best all-around catchers in Division III.

Backing up Nodzenski will be a couple of freshmen. Albuquerque native Karl Nelson ’13 was All-District and batted .368 in his senior year. Wichita product Brian Taylor ’13 was an honorable mention All-State pick in his senior year at The Independent School, where current Grinnell senior Brian Sollo ’10 attended as well.

INFIELD

Returning to guide the Grinnell infield are senior captains, second baseman Chad Takabuki ’10 and third baseman Sollo. Defensively, there are not two finer players at their positions in the conference. Takabuki had only three errors in 166 chances while helping turn 29 double plays while Sollo showed his naturally exceptional hand-eye coordination while fielding the hot corner with only four errors in the first 32 games of the 2009 season. Both Takabuki and Sollo figure to rebound from sluggish offensive numbers last spring, though each had their bright spots. Takabuki still hit 12 doubles and stole 15 bases, while Sollo smashed 3 HR and drove in 28 runs.

Backing up in the infield will primarily be the responsibility of some of the young Pioneers. Michael Goldfien ’12 had a solid freshman year and provides Grinnell with good defense at any infield spot and is a consistent contact hitter from the left side. At second a trio of freshmen could see playing time in Justin Westre ’13 and Tyler Sipala ’13. Westre, a Lake Forest, Ill., product, was a two-time All-Conference performer for Grinnell alum David Wick at Lake Forest Academy. Sipala hails from Saddle River, New Jersey and boasts very quick feet and hands at a position that demands both.

At third base, Sollo’s primary backup will likely be Jesse Ney ’13. Ney, also a member of Grinnell’s famous basketball program, is a local Iowa product and was Third Team All-State after smashing six home runs his senior year.

Perhaps the biggest question mark on this most recent edition of Grinnell baseball is: Who will play shortstop? After losing four-year starter and 2009 All-Region performer, Ben Mendoza, who led the country in doubles per game with 21 in 34 games, finding a suitable replacement will be the big key to the Pioneers’ success in 2010. Freshman Drew Davis ’13 is the most likely suitor to the shortstop position in 2010. Davis, a Marietta, Ga., native, grew up in the East Cobb area which is well known as a baseball hot-bed. A two-time All-Region performer for Wheeler HS, Davis exhibits a natural athletic ability to play the shortstop position as well as provide a solid bat and good speed to the offensive lineup. Another freshman, Matt Blumenreich ’13 will also figure into the shortstop situation. A product of Scottsdale, Ariz., Blumenreich was a two-year starter on his high school team that finished ranked sixth nationally by Baseball America.

At first base, the Pioneers will have to replace three-year starter, Brett Maloney. Leading the charge is junior Ryan Fletcher ‘11, who at 6-4 provides a big target and he also reached base at a .415 pace in a backup role last season. Pushing Fletcher is a trio of underclassmen, Ronnie Gray ‘11, Ryan Melson ‘13, and Ormond. Gray hit .357 in a reserve role in 2009 despite plenty of health setbacks and should be primed for a good sophomore season. Melson, a freshman from Harvard, Illinois, was his team MVP and an All-Conference selection and he potentially will provide some good power off the bench for the Pioneers. Ormond, who will also pitch for the Pioneers, hit .402 in his senior season and provides the infield with an athletic rangy target.

OUTFIELD

The starting outfield from 2009 returns intact for the 2010 season, making this the most experienced unit for the Pioneers. Right fielder and senior captain, Paden Roder ‘10, will again led the charge after tearing up opposing pitchers each of the last two seasons. Roder is a career .354 hitter with 11 home runs and also possesses deceptive speed which has allowed him to swipe 15 bases in 3 years and also cover a lot of ground in the corner. Three-year starter and senior, JP Prouty ’10 returns to roam centerfield once again. A standout soccer player for Grinnell, Prouty has tremendous range while still posting a solid .295 career average and has only been caught stealing twice in his career. Returning in leftfield is junior Greg Suryn ’11. Suryn posted a breakout season in 2009 batting .371 and reaching base at a .450 clip. An ideal two-hole hitter, he is a line-drive contact hitter with an innate ability to pepper the right field grass.

Closely behind the three returning starters are two very talented and much improved players. Rangy sophomore Matt Skelly ’12 (another basketball-baseball player) started only eight games last spring before breaking a bone in his hand, but he is primed for a great season after spending much of his summer improving his game and his overall strength. Senior Nate Pierce ’10 also figures to be in the outfield mix. After taking the 2008 season off, Pierce spent most of 2009 honing his swing and he has made massive improvements in his overall game since last spring. Both he and Skelly provide the Pioneers with the rare lefty bat off the bench. Sophomores Jason Kemis ‘12, Joe Maloney ‘12, Chris Peconga ’12 and Dugan Knoll ’12 will all also compete for playing time in the crowded and talented Pioneer outfield.