The William Penn Statesmen baseball team will be hoping to return to the top as it enters the 2008 season with high expectations.
Penn finished the 2007 campaign at 25-23 overall and 9-17 in the Midwest Collegiate Conference, snapping the programís three-year title streak.
"It was pretty obvious physically and statistically that we were not nearly as good in 2007 as in previous years," Statesmen Head Coach Mike Laird said. "Our ERA was up and our defensive and offensive production was far below our normal expectations. Our guys tried hard but we just seemed to be snakebitten at times. The talent level was not there to carry us through some of the close games."
Several individuals departed the program, including all-Region VII performer Travon Jackson, who tied for the programís single-season doubles record. The Statesmen do return a decent group of talent, highlighted by all-conference left-handed pitcher Cody Himes (Sr., Bishop, Calif., West Hills CC) as well as right-handed hurler Jason Francis (Sr., San Leandro, Calif., Laney CC). Himes led the team with seven wins, while Francis paced the staff with a 2.61 ERA and 75 innings of work.
"We did not provide a lot of run support for Cody or Jason last year," Laird added. "Those guys hung in there and still won quite a few games for us."
Reliever Casey Ramback (Sr., Sonora, Calif., Cabrillo CC) also returns after appearing in a team-high 13 games.
Heading the offensive crew is Carl Sievert (Sr., Duluth, Minn., Itasca CC), who Laird believes may have all the tools to play at the next level.
"Carl is a high-tool player who could have a breakout year if he remains healthy," Laird said.
Lack of returning depth forced the coaching staff to work a bit harder on the recruiting trail during the offseason and Laird believes he has brought in several individuals, especially pitchers, that can immediately make an impact.
Francis, Himes, and Ramback lead the pitching staff, while fellow returner Esau Aceves (Sr., Culver City, Calif., Compton CC) also looked to have improved during the fall season.
Francis tossed eight complete games and two shutouts, while Himes had a 2.68 ERA and limited opponents to a team-low .235 batting average in 2007.
Ramback paced the team with three saves, while Aceves was 1-2 with a 4.85 ERA in 26 innings.
Laird spent a good deal of time during the offseason trying to balance out his staff and succeeded as several new southpaws have joined the navy blue and gold.
Four of these junior lefties have Laird very excited. Daley Benson (Jr., Coeur díAlene, Idaho, Yakima Valley CC), Joey Grant (Jr., Soquel, Calif., College of San Mateo), Tim Waters (Jr., Marysville, Wash., Everett CC), and Chris Wedel (Jr., Wasco, Calif., Taft CC) will give Penn options that it did not have a season ago.
"Daley Benson is very competitive and looked good in the fall, while Joey Grant is a very smooth thrower," Laird said. "They could both be top five starters for us."
"Tim Waters and Chris Wedel are both big, strong lefties who could also be starters," Laird added.
Josh Gregory (Jr., Merced, Calif., Merced CC), Daniel Holland (Jr., Apple Valley, Calif., Victor Valley CC), Keith Rizor (Jr., Westminster, Calif., Orange Coast CC), Steven Schultze (Jr., Simi Valley, Calif., LA Mission CC), and Matt Tyo (So., Alberta, Iowa Western CC) could also gobble up some innings throughout the year.
"Our overall staff is improved, not only in quality but also depth," Laird said.
While the pitching staff seems to be much stronger and deeper, questions and concerns abound regarding the teamís fielding positions. The Statesmen have suffered some season-ending injuries occur prior to their first spring practices which have placed an ominous cloud over the team.
Most notably, two projected infield starters, Blake Willard (Jr., Auburn, Wash., Green River CC), who will undergo ACL surgery, and junior-college All-American first baseman Chris Paul (Jr., Burr Oak, Ill., College of DuPage), who will likely undergo shoulder surgery, are expected to miss all of 2008.
"By losing a couple players of their quality before the season even begins puts even more pressure on everyone else to stay healthy so we can get back to the top in the MCC," Laird said.
Bill Greatbatch (Sr., Knoxville, Kirkwood CC) is the lone returner behind the plate and will have a good battle for the catching position with Ramon Cabral (Sr., Antioch, Laney CC), who has impressed Laird in early workouts.
Greatbatch hit .274 with six doubles in addition to eight RBIs and one run scored in 2007.
Jerid Anderson (Jr., Port Angeles, Wash., Yakima Valley CC), Mike Uhland (Fr., Omaha, Neb., Omaha South HS), and Jonathan Manson (So., St. Louis, Mo., Alabama A&M) will likely fit into reserve positions.
Lack of depth is a major concern for the Statesmen at first base as newcomer Curtis Graham (So., Albia, Simpson) looks to have the inside track, while returner Aaron Konrath (Sr., Modesto, Calif., Modesto CC) could also take some starts as a quality utility player.
Konrath owned a .258 batting average with five doubles, one triple, one home run, 17 RBIs, and 17 runs scored.
Newcomers Matt Casey (Jr., Palmdale, Calif., Antelope Valley CC) and Vincent Barone (Fr., Green Cove, Fla., Fleming Island HS) will compete at second base with Casey probably getting the nod due to his strong defensive skills.
Alex Chavez (Jr., Culver City, Calif., LA Harbor CC) is coming off a strong fall season and is already penciled in at shortstop.
Schultze will face off with Konrath and Greer Grashaw (Jr., San Angelo, Texas, Antelope Valley CC) for the third base position.
While Konrath earned several starts in left field last season, the chance that he could serve in the infield leaves the left field spot very much undecided. Anderson and Grashaw, who hit .403 in the fall, are also a possibility. Himes has shown great versatility and will also get a strong look.
2007 redshirt Chuck Williams (Fr., North Chicago, Ill., North Chicago Community HS) and newcomers Cory Randall (Fr., What Cheer, Tri-County HS) and Chris McBride (Fr., San Lorenzo, Calif., San Lorenzo HS) will all get their chance to win the position as well.
Richie Hawley (Jr., Palmdale, Calif., Antelope Valley CC) has the speed and range to be very successful in center field and those attributes make him the leading candidate for the leadoff hitter position as well.
Sievert will once again man the right-field corner after a solid junior campaign. As Laird mentioned, Sievert possesses all the tools to play at the next level, including great speed and arm strength.
Sievert hit .311 in 2007 with five doubles, three triples, one home run, 28 runs scored, and 23 RBIs.
Senior returner Zack Miller (Sr., Las Vegas, Nev., Victor Valley CC) could win the designated hitter role, although he may be placed as day-to-day for some time during the season as he is recovering from summer knee surgery.
Miller was one of the best bats for the Statesmen a year ago, hitting .325 with 13 doubles, a team-best three home runs, 28 RBIs, and 28 runs scored.
Penn is slated to open the 2008 campaign on February 16-17 when it travels to St. Louis, Mo. to play Missouri-St. Louis.
The team then embarks on its traditional spring break trip from March 2-8 to play 12 games in Orlando, Fla.
"We will play some very strong competition in Florida and it will be a good test for this squad," Laird said. "Remaining healthy during that trip is always our first concern. Our non-conference schedule is very tough and our guys have to be completely focused in order to do well. We will need some leaders to step up."
Laird expects the MCC to once again be strong from top to bottom, but figures defending champion St. Ambrose to have the strongest chance to win the title as the Fighting Bees return much of their 2007 lineup.
"St. Ambrose should be the team to beat, but Grand View always gets tough Division I talent," Laird said. "Iowa Wesleyan and Mount Mercy will put some great talent out there as well. Iím not sure about the other teams in the conference, but I know all of them will be solid and will come ready to play every day."
"I expect our pitchers to compete every time out and give us a chance to win," Laird said. "We must remain healthy as our depth is not as good as we would like, particularly after the infield injuries we suffered this preseason. Our hitters will have to step up as well for us to have the type of season we feel we are capable of."