Middlebury Baseball Ready for Redemption

By ALICE HUDSON and JENNY LANGERMAN

Before last season, the baseball team had only qualified for the Nescac playoffs two times in the conference’s 16-year playoff history. In that span of time, since 2001, the Panthers only finished over .500 twice. For some perspective, Middlebury went 11–23 two years ago, and they are just three years removed from a dismal 4–24 season.

Last season, Middlebury finished over .500, going 22–16, and advanced to the Nescac championship round, where the Panthers came within one game of capturing their second Nescac championship and an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. It was a dramatic reversal for the Panthers who were previously, frankly, known as one of the worst varsity teams at Middlebury and the butt of many jokes on campus.

With momentum on their side, the Panthers opened their 2018 season last Saturday, March 10, with a loss to Stevens in Hoboken, New Jersey, where they fell 8–4. The Ducks had an advantage in that it was their seventh game of the spring, whereas it was the Panthers’ first chance to get outside.

After their first soiree outside, the Panthers went on to face Bard at Honey Field in Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, for a doubleheader last Sunday, March 11. The Panthers split with Bard, winning the first game 7–0 before falling 9–3 in the second.

Despite the weekend’s 1–2 record, the Panthers have lofty goals in mind after one of their best seasons in program history.

“The goal at the front of everybody’s mind this season is winning the Nescac championship,” said Rob Erickson ’18, one of Middlebury’s three captains. “Many of us felt like it slipped through our fingers last year, and with the combination of talent and experience we have this time around, we feel like we are in a tremendous position to get the job done .”

Head coach Mike Leonard enters his second season at the helm aware of the expectations placed on him and his team after last year’s success.

“This year’s biggest challenge will be embracing the expectations that come with having success,” said Leonard.“I think last year we could be an underdog and surprise teams with our ability, but this year we’ll have a target on our back. So far this year, I think that the team has really embraced this, and they understand that having high standards can be motivating and doesn’t have to be a negative.”

After six seasons as head coach of Bates, Leonard took over at Middlebury last season, replacing longtime coach Bob Smith, who was in charge of the program for 32 years.

Leonard is an up-and-coming coach who made the Nescac playoffs twice at Bates and came within a game of winning the conference title in just his first year with Middlebury.

Since last May’s defeat in the Nescac championship, the Panthers spent the offseason preparing to reach last season’s high points and to surpass them. The taste of victory put fire in their bellies to achieve what they came so close to last season.

“Everyone who was on the team last year has worked very hard, especially in the weight room, and as a result we have a much stronger, faster, and athletic team,” said Leonard. He and the Panthers search for ways to get over the hump, something he feels will be a key difference between the success of last year and this year. Among the list of returning contributors to watch this season are shortstop Brooks Carroll ’20, second baseman Justin Han ’20, infielder Andrew Hennings ’20, and outfielders Sam Graf ’19 and Alan Guild ’20.

A trio of sophomore infielders aim to follow up on their tremendous first season in the blue and white. Carroll played 33 games at shortstop last season. He hit .274 with three home runs in 106 at-bats and showed a patient eye with 15 walks. On top of that, Carroll showed some speed on the basepaths, stealing nine bags in 10 tries. He was also in the middle of 14 double plays.

Han often paired with Carroll in the middle of the infield at second base and blasted a team-high four home runs in his first season. He batted .319, with an on-base percentage of .418 and a slugging percentage of .504. Meanwhile, Hennings led the team with a 1.001 OPS in his 67 at-bats.

Kevin Woodring ’20 looks to be the frontrunner to pick up the slack at first base after hitting .281 and hitting two home runs last season to go along with five doubles at first base. He seeks to fill the void left by Jason Locke ’17, who graduated after last year’s conference championship run. Locke and Ryan Rizzo ’18, who hit .301 and stole 20 bases last season at the top of the lineup, are the only major contributors that the team has to replace from last season’s squad.

Sam Graf ’19 is an immensely important piece in the outfield and in the batting order. Graf hit .323 last season, with three home runs and a team-leading 12 doubles and three triples. He also did not make a single error in the field while racking up 48 putouts and five assists.

Along with producing the fourth-most runs in the conference last season, the Panthers also had the second-best batting average, on-base and slugging percentages in the conference.

On the other hand, Middlebury gave up the most runs in the Nescac last season, with the second-worst ERA and fielding percentage in the conference.

Every pitcher who started a game last season, except for Dylan Takamori ’17, returns. Colby Morris ’19, another team captain, will head the pitching staff after tossing 68.2 innings last season in 12 starts, going 6–4 with a 4.46 ERA and a conference-high four complete games.

Spencer Shores ’20, Colin Waters ’19 and Erickson pitched 45, 43.1 and 38.1 innings, respectively. Shores finished with a 4.80 ERA and struck out almost nine batters per nine innings, while Waters recorded a 4.78 ERA. Erickson finished with a 3.99 ERA. Conor Himstead returns after tallying eight saves and a team-best 1.64 ERA last season.

Taking the mound once again will be Erickson; Colby Morris ’19, another team captain; Spencer Shores ’20; and catcher Gray Goolsby ’20, all of whom held key roles and saw significant playing time during the 2017 season.

This year’s team is confident it can replace the lost production from six graduated Panthers.

Jake Dianno ’21, Henry Strmecki ’21, George Goldstein ’21, Evan Stewart ’21, Ryan Hanrahan ’21, Bobby Sullivan ’21, Michael Farinelli ’21, Will Oppenheim ’21 and Jake Miller ’21 make up the Panthers’ first-year class.

Leonard is excited about what this new group of players will bring to his team.

“The new players always bring great energy and enthusiasm to the team,” Leonard said about his first-year class. “I know that the players who are new to the program are eager to contribute, and I believe most of them will in some way.”

Faced with the challenge of adapting to college life, the first-years “are willing to absorb the information thrown at them,” team captain Sebastian Sanchez ’18 believes.

Sanchez also believes the first-years will only add to one of Middlebury’s biggest strengths: its depth.

“We have an amazing depth chart, and if any one single person is put into the game, they will perform,” Sanchez said. “Additionally, everybody on our team can hit the ball hard and far, from our lead off guy to our nine-spot. We also have depth in the bullpen, and each of our pitchers can come into a situation throwing strikes and getting outs.”

Erickson agrees with his fellow senior and captain.

“Everyone on the team, from starters all the way down, knows that he has something to contribute every day,” Erickson asserted.

Erickson observed that each season presents new challenges to a team.

“One of our challenges this year will be forming a new team identity behind new leaders,” said Erickson. One of the challenges this season will be forging a new identity after playing as underdogs last season.

The team’s chemistry both on and off the field is something the Panthers feel will be hugely advantageous this season.

“Our team dynamic embraces not only the players but also the coaching staff,” says Sanchez. “We pick each other up when we are down. We love to play loose and energetic. No matter the score, no matter if we are up or down, we are loud and cheering for our teammates.”

Erickson agrees. “This is the closest team I’ve played on in my four years at Middlebury. When I take a step back and look at my teammates, I see a pretty goofy group of guys, so it makes me very proud that such a diverse group of individuals has been able to coalesce into a very tight unit.”

This weekend, Saturday, March 17–Sunday, March 18, the Panthers have a unique opportunity, as they will get the chance to travel to Atlanta, Georgia, to play another game against Stevens and then two against Emory.

Leonard, Erickson, Sanchez, Morris and all members of the team are ready to prove last season was not a one-hit wonder. Together, they are ready to elevate the baseball program to another level in their quest for a Nescac championship.

ROAD TRIPIN’

The baseball team will spend most of the next several weeks on the road, starting this weekend with their trip to Atlanta.

Based on our rudimentary calculations done here in the back of the newspaper office where the sports section is stationed, that could mean close to 7,000 round trip miles.

Our unscientific guessing also estimates that his is the furthest the team has travelled over the course of a two-plus-week period in its history.

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Middlebury Baseball Ready for Redemption