TIFFIN - Following an OAC regular-season championship and NCAA regional appearance in head coach Chad Fitzgerald's first season, the Heidelberg baseball team continues to have high expectations as they enter the 2016 season. Despite a large graduating senior class from last season, the Student Princes return a solid core that looks to build off of last year's success and make a run deep into May.
Heidelberg opens up the 2016 season ranked 12th in the D3baseball.com Top 25. Last year, the Student Princes opened the season unranked, but climbed as high as 4th during the seventh week of the season before concluding their season one win away from an appearance in the Mideast Regional championship game.
The focal point on offense for the Berg is two-time All-American outfielder Derek Hug. The senior is already garnering the attention of the nation in preparation for the season, as he was named the preseason Division III National Player of the Year by Baseball America while also being named a preseason first team All-American by D3baseball.com.
"We expect a lot out of him...to be in the middle of the lineup and produce, play really good defense, be really aggressive on the basepaths, and just be the core of our lineup," said Fitzgerald. "The first three years of college he played both baseball and football, so I think his focus is a little bit different when he focused the whole year just on baseball. We're going to go as he goes."
Hug finished last season with 70 hits and a .376 batting average while leading the Ohio Athletic Conference in home runs (13), stolen bases (21) and slugging percentage (.677). Not only does he excel on the field, but last year he was named a CoSIDA Academic All-American for his combined efforts on the field and in the classroom, becoming just the second Academic All-American in Heidelberg baseball history.
The Student Princes will need to replace four All-OAC hitters that graduated a year ago, but the pieces are in place for returners and newcomers to step up.
Evan Long, who earned honorable mention All-OAC honors a year ago, will make the transition to shortstop this year. The junior drove in 28 runs last year and earned OAC hitter of the week honors on April 27th. Fellow junior Adam Hershberger, who started 28 games last year and was All-OAC as a freshman, will tackle the hot corner for the Berg.
"Evan is a very, very good defender, so moving from second base to shortstop will not be a hard transition for him," said Fitzgerald. "Adam (Hershberger) took a step back from his All-OAC freshman campaign last year, but we expect him to bounce back."
First and second base will see new faces for the Student Princes step in. Senior Clayton Wielinski as well as junior Cory Jacobs look to compete for playing time at first as well as the DH spot while the left-handed bat of Kyle Slovick as well as some newcomers will fill Long's void at second base.
Flanking Hug in the outfield is fellow senior T.J. Harkness, who has been a four-year starter for HU. He has racked up over 100 career hits and currently holds a career .300 batting average, helping the Berg boast one of the most experienced outfields in the conference.
"TJ has been a four-year starter for us and has kind of flown under the radar but has had a really good career," said Fitzgerald. "We look for him to have another good year as well and be a leader for us offensively at the top of the lineup."
The other outfield spot will see someone new, as sophomore Ryan Marasti will be looked at to fill in at left field.
With the graduation of Alex Grove at catcher, who moved to a position as a graduate assistant coach, Heidelberg will have a wide-open competition to replace the three-time All-OAC performer. Joe Walton, Kyle Karaffa, Chaz Bova, and freshman Patrick Lavelle will all look to compete for time behind the plate.
The pitching staff for the Student Princes will have a lot of experience at the top, as the Berg returns a host of veteran arms.
Adam Manner will be poised to improve upon his outstanding season last year, when he was lights out for much of the season. He earned ABCA All-Region honors as well as first team All-OAC recognition as he finished with an 8-1 record and a 2.46 ERA over a team-high 84 innings. Manner has been a workhorse on the mound at HU, throwing 182.2 innings over the course of his three years in competition after missing action during his first year on campus due to an injury.
"He (Adam) just loves to compete. It's funny to see him do anything, whether it's pick-up hoops or weight room work," said Fitzgerald. "He's just a guy that loves to turn anything into a competition. We're fortunate to have him back, because he's almost another coach on the staff as well because he's really taken charge, so we're expecting really big things out of him."
Seniors Steve Huber and Kyle Fluharty provide a lot more experience to the pitching staff for the Berg, as they have both logged over 110 innings over their careers thus far and earned honorable mention All-OAC honors as sophomores.
"We definitely expect both Steve and Kyle to come back and have good senior years," said Fitzgerald. "Both of those guys have had success at the college level, put in a lot of work over the summer, and have started off the preseason well."
Sam Ankrom, who was named honorable mention All-OAC after his freshman campaign last year, will be relied upon as well to eat up innings on the mound. He won his first two collegiate starts last year en route to a 5-2 record on the season, also recording one save as he filled in as a reliever in key situations of conference games.
"We put Sam in a lot of big situations last year as a freshman and he handled them well," said Fitzgerald. "He's another guy who likes to compete and work hard and we expect him to throw a lot of big innings for us this year."
Despite the loss of last year's graduating class of seven key contributors, Heidelberg remains poised to compete at a high level and be a presence in the postseason, as has been the norm for Berg baseball teams over the past two decades.
"We're excited. We have a lot of guys that have had to wait their turn, but we're looking forward to some of those guys out there," said Fitzgerald. "I think we're going to be more athletic than we've been in the past and we return a ton of innings, so I'm excited for the upcoming year."
Heidelberg is scheduled to open their season on Feburary 27th in Chillicothe for a doubleheader with Manchester and Case Western Reserve, weather pending. The Student Princes will make their annual Spring Trip to Florida beginning on March 13, where they will play eight games over the course of seven games in both Port Charlotte and Fort Myers. The defense of their regular conference championship will begin on March 25th, when HU travels to Capital for a doubleheader.