City driving presents some unique situations. In an urban setting the traffic moves faster than in the country and there are more options. There's not much time to decide which road to take.
Ashland University is located in a rural setting, but the 2012 baseball team finds itself in a similar situation to that driver who's attempting to navigate city streets. The Eagles are trying to figure out what their best options are and while it's not rush hour yet, the season is just around the corner. The good news is that the GPS system the Eagles employ, the experience of head coach John Schaly, rarely makes a wrong turn. Schaly has won 910 games in his career, 547 at Ashland. Four times he's guided the Eagles to the NCAA Division II World Series.
A year ago the Eagles were 30-21, 19-15 (third place) in the GLIAC. Six position players and five pitchers return from that unit. Sprinkled in among those veterans are some promising newcomers. Some members of that latter group are going to get a chance to contribute immediately.
"It's going to be a learning experience," replied Schaly, when asked for his outlook as the Eagles prepare for their annual trip to Florida (Mar. 2-11) where they will open the season. "Early on we'll get a look at a lot of different combinations. We'll see what works. If someone's struggling, we have someone else to put in there. We have a lot more depth this year. They're inexperienced, but a lot more talented. They just need to get game experience."
Here's a look at the Eagles as they prepare for the season.
Pitching – A year ago, the Eagles featured the GLIAC and Midwest region pitcher of the year – Ajay Meyer (9-3, 1.57 ERA). Meyer was an All-American and replacing him will not be easy. But the Eagles have some power arms that have pitched in big games in the past. No one will have any sympathy for the Eagles with the talent they have on hand.
Senior righty Aaron Hilt (Richmond, Ohio/Edison) was 5-5 a year ago with a 2.33 ERA. He will be asked to anchor this year's staff. Just behind him are two junior right-handers - Brad Thomas (Orrville, Ohio) and Zach Botjer (Deshler, Ohio/Sinclair C.C.). Thomas was 5-4 last year and has pitched in the NCAA playoffs in the past. This is Botjer's first year with the Eagles.
"These are three guys who can throw in the 90's," Schaly said. "Aaron has gained confidence. He had a great summer in the Great Lakes League and that helped his confidence. We always knew he had the potential. Now he believes it."
Behind those three, the Eagles will take extended looks at five other hurlers. That group includes sophomore lefty Cole Hudson (Dresden, Ohio/Zanesville), senior right-hander Joe Malfara (Port Clinton, Ohio), sophomore right-hander Vince Frate (North Royalton, Ohio), junior right-hander Garrett Lovik (Flint, Mich./Mott C.C.) and freshman righty Zach Wolfe (Williamsport, Ohio/Westfall).
Hudson was 2-0 with a 3.32 ERA last season and started three times. Frate pitched in seven games and was 1-1. Most of his work was out of the bullpen, he had one start. Malfara was 1-3 last season, but has pitched several strong games over the last three seasons.
"We're going to move guys in and out," stated Schaly. "We may go through three or four pitchers a game and bring in a fresh arm. We'll see how some of these guys do."
There is very little set in stone with this group entering the season. One major positive is that several of these pitchers have experience pitching out of the bullpen and as starting pitchers. Botjer has thrived with both assignments and could do both this season.
AU has several other pitchers who Schaly will look to bring along as the season progresses. That group includes freshman right-hander Jake Baldwin (Madison Heights, Mich./Lamphere), junior right-hander Shayne Herold (LeRoy, N.Y./Genesee C.C.), senior right-hander Ian McNichol (Reston Va./Mongomery Rockville C.C.), sophomore righty David Devine (Massillon, Ohio/Jackson) and freshman left-hander Richie Brown (Broadview Heights/Brecksville).
McNichol was a catcher a year ago and Herold was primarily an outfielder. Herold pitched in two games last season with one start.
Catcher – Sophomore Chaz McGrain (Valley City, Ohio/Olmsted Falls, Ohio) has the most experience on the roster. He appeared in 32 games last season and started 17.
"Chaz is a very good defensive catcher," said Schaly. "He has a year of experience and is getting better offensively."
Junior John Broll (Mississagua, Ontario/Genesee C.C.) is in his first season at AU, but brings college experience to the position.
"John's a left-handed hitter and he'll see some playing time," Schaly said. "He's got some power."
Sophomores Mickey Manser (Salem, Ohio/West Branch) and Adam Murphy (West Carrollton, Ohio) are two other backstops on the roster. Manser has also seen time at designated hitter and it's easy to see why – he hit .354 last season in 26 games. Manser had 12 starts in 2011.
First Base – There's no uncertainty here. Junior Austin Erb (Mechanicsville, Va./Hanover) is coming off a year that saw him hit .350 (second on the team) with a pair of homers and 19 RBI. Erb was second on the team in slugging percentage (.487) and on-base percentage (.417). He was a constant in the middle of the order. That won't change this season.
"He's worked on staying on top of the ball and he's hitting more line drives," reported Schaly. "Austin's such a hard worker. I think he's going to have a great year."
If Erb needs a break, the Eagles could turn to freshman Kyle Vozar (Hinckley, Ohio/Medina Highland).
"Kyle had a great fall," Schaly said. "He's got some pop and could get some at bats at designated hitter."
Freshman Sean Leonard (Lewis Center, Ohio/Olentangy) will also work at this spot.
Second Base – Graduation claimed starter Matt McAllester, who hit a team-high .367 last season and earned all-conference and all-region laurels. Now the Eagles will turn to a pair of freshmen – Stephen James (Westlake, Ohio) and Giancarlo Saia (Mentor, Ohio/Lake Catholic).
"Stephen had a great fall offensively and defensively and he really understands the game," said Schaly. "Giancarlo is a very good hitter. Even though he's a natural third baseman he can also play second base or the outfield."
Shortstop – Matt Gundlach (Monroeville, Ohio/Sandusky Perkins) is back for his second season as the starter. Gundlach showed steady progress throughout last season, offensively and defensively.
"Matt keeps getting better offensively," reminded Schaly. "Defensively he's got a great arm. His range is good and he has good hands. Matt will make plays."
Freshman Austin Walts (Amherst, Ohio/Steele) will provide relief behind Gundlach.
Third Base – Throughout Schaly's AU tenure the Eagles have had a knack for developing exceptional all-around hitters who flourish early in their career. The latest example is sophomore third baseman Tyler Gray (Plain City, Ohio/Johnathan Alder), who hit .335 with nine doubles and 29 RBI last season. Gray was named first team All-GLIAC.
"Tyler had a great year offensively and defensively," commented Schaly. "It was his redshirt year and that paid off for him."
Behind Gray the Eagles will count on the much-improved sophomore Wade Kaido (Zanesville, Ohio).
"Wade's shed 20 pounds and he's in great shape," Schaly said. "He'll be in the lineup someplace."
Outfield – In center field, AU plans to unveil senior Zach Thompson (Marshalltown, Iowa/Cleveland State). Schaly believes he will be an exceptional fit in the lead-off spot of the batting order and he can solidify the outfield defense.
"Zach runs well with power," Schaly said. "He's a leader."
The coaching staff has to determine who will play on each side of Thompson. That's one of the major questions to be answered on AU's spring trip to Florida. The two most experienced candidates are Herold and senior Ethan Houck (Fort Wayne, Ind./Glen Oaks C.C.). Houck, who hits from the right side, hit .293 last season while playing in 37 games. Herold hit .288 in 40 games and knocked in 15 runs. Other possibilities here are Kaido and Saia.
Four freshmen who will try to push for playing time are Tyler Bires (Lorain, Ohio/Amherst Steele), Adam Urbania (Mentor, Ohio/Lake Catholic), Cole Benner (Heath, Ohio) and Joe Allocco (Delaware, Ohio/Olentangy).
Outlook – The Eagles are picked to finish third in the GLIAC Coaches' Preseason Poll, three points behind second place Wayne State. AU has also been listed among the top teams in the Midwest Region entering the season. Those polls give an indication of what the opposition thinks of Ashland's collection of young talent. Much of last season was spent learning how to play at the collegiate level. Schaly believes this team has ample leadership on its pitching staff and that the lineup has the versatility to score runs a number of ways. The Eagles shouldn't have to wait for a long ball to chase home runs.
"The bunting game and the running game have become more of a factor in the game," said Schaly. "I like that. We've always worked on that part of the game. We've liked small ball, putting pressure on the defense. We have guys who can play that style."
The Eagles face some stern early-season tests. In Florida, they will play Minnesota-Mankato twice and will play key region games against Lewis, Rockhurst and Indianapolis. Ashland plays four games at GLIAC favorite Grand Valley State on Mar. 31-Apr. 1.