The Horned Frog baseball team accomplished some important firsts last season: hosting an NCAA regional, advancing to the first Super Regional in program history and falling just one game short of reaching the College World Series.
Redshirt junior pitcher Steven Maxwell said the team will have its sights on taking one more step this season.
“We completely expect to be in Omaha playing for the national championship at the end of the season,” Maxwell said.
Head coach Jim Schlossnagle said The Horned Frogs will try to make a run at Omaha with a team that will rely heavily on a pitching staff that is the strength of the team on paper. Senior Paul Gerrish, juniors Greg Holle and Steven Maxwell, sophomore Kyle Winkler and freshman Matt Purke will all compete for starts.
Maxwell went 3-2 in 12 games that included 10 starts, and he said he is ready to be challenged by the rest of the pitchers.
“The competition within the team is awesome,” he said. “There’s not a selfish guy on this staff, and they all want to see each other succeed and they want to compete at the same time. When you get a staff like that, (it could be) a very special season.”
The pitching staff is so deep that it will force senior Tyler Lockwood to the bullpen full-time after Schlossnagle used him as a starter during each of the past two seasons.
Lockwood will join three relievers who each had an earned run average of 4.50 or below with junior Trent Appleby and sophomore Erik Miller returning in setup roles. Senior Eric Marshall, who had nine saves last season and was named a Ping! Baseball Third Team All-American, will be the team’s closer.
“If you can say you really feel good about your pitching staff, that’s 80 or 90 percent of the battle,” Schlossnagle said. If I was sitting here saying, ‘I love our offense, but I don’t know if we’re going to be able to pitch,’ then that’s scary. The person on the mound is the ultimate equalizer between teams. You can have a really bad team play a really good team, but if the bad team has a really good pitcher, then usually things are going to be pretty close that day.”
Away from the mound, five Horned Frog seniors, who played every game, graduated after last season, including all-conference performers third baseman Matt Carpenter, utility outfielder Chris Ellington and first baseman Matt Vern.
Schlossnagle said replacing the leadership that the seniors brought to the team would be a challenge, but there are others on the team who have stepped up.
“You don’t have to be a senior to be a leader. (Sophomore utility infielder Taylor) Featherston and (sophomore utility outfielder Jason) Coats both have leadership ability, and they both played a lot last year,” Schlossnagle said. “There’s no replacement for experience. You just have to go out there and play.”
Senior catcher Bryan Holaday, the only returner who has started for more than one season, said team unity, in addition to Featherston and Coats, has helped alleviate any pressure he felt to fill a leadership role by himself.
The team reloaded with Baseball America’s fourth-ranked recruiting class, which included two position players taken in June’s Major League Baseball draft who Schlossnagle said will compete for an everyday job: freshman catcher and utility outfielder Josh Elander and junior transfer utility infielder and outfielder Jerome Pena.
The remnants of last season’s everyday lineup include Coats, senior first baseman Matt Curry, Featherston and Holaday. All four players hit .300 or better in regular playing time.
Despite the team’s success a year ago, Holaday emphasized that nothing is guaranteed for the Frogs.
“We’re going to build off last year, but we’re not going to use it for anything else,” he said. “We know what we are able to do this year, and we just have to come together and prove it on the field.”