By Adam Duke
Griffs baseball returns to the field this weekend for a four-game series against the Gardner Webb University Runnin’ Bulldogs. The team begins the 2017 campaign this afternoon in Boiling Springs, North Carolina.
Last season, the Griffs finished fourth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference just one year removed from their MAAC championship victory. They finished with a 16-8 record in the conference and 32-27 overall.
The Griffs came close to winning the tournament once again after two straight wins against Marist and Siena, but back-to-back losses against Fairfield and Siena spelled the end of the 2015-16 season for the Golden Griffins. Fairfield went on to defeat Siena to become the season’s champions.
“The goal every year of our program is to be one of, if not the, dominant team in the league,” said head coach Mike McRae. “I still think there’s a target on our back, as we have been as we have been a team that’s been to the playoffs each and every year.”
Pitcher Zachary Sloan said that he feels the team had tough luck near the end of last season, but this year’s squad is looking good and should be a contender for the MAAC championship once again.
At the end of last season, the Griffs had scored the second most amount of runs in the MAAC with 317. Only Fairfield scored more. The Griffs were also second in walks with 246 and were first in stolen bases with 78.
Defensively, the Griffs posted a 3.94 earned run average, the lowest in the league. They allowed the second least amount of runs as well, with only 266 runners crossing the plate through 59 games.
Current senior Jake Lumley led the league in runs, scoring 50 times in the campaign. Sophomore Nolan Hunt earned a 2.90 ERA, the third lowest in the league. He was also the only pitcher of those who were ranked in the top 10 for ERA to achieve an unbeaten record, winning all five games that he started.
This year, MAAC play begins for the Griffs on April 1 with a three-game home series against Monmouth. Picked to finish second in the MAAC in a preseason poll of coaches, the Griffs are determined to make their return to the championship.
Losing five seniors, including infielder and offensive force Anthony Massicci, the blue and gold added nine freshmen to the roster with a total of five fielders and four pitchers.
“I don’t think that that transition’s any different this year than it has been in years past. We’ve always lost a group of talented players and I think that’s the mark of a good program,” said McRae. “I don’t think you can ever replace a guy, you just try to get better in as many different areas and hope that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
In addition to losing graduated players, the Griffs have also lost senior pitcher Josh Shepley for the season due to an injury. In losing Shepley, Lumley has become the only senior on the team this season.
“I know I’m the only senior this year, but I feel like we’ve got a lot of juniors and a lot of leadership in the locker room,” said Lumley. “It’s real easy to talk to the guys and tell them if something’s up or if they’re not doing something right.”
Offensively, the Griffs will rely on Lumley to perform similarly to the way he did last season to lead the team on the field.
“I’m just trying to take a good approach to the plate, stick to my strengths,” said Lumley. “Being a hitter near the top of the lineup, I just need to get on base a lot and let the big guys in the middle of the lineup do their part in knocking me in.”
Defensively, the Griffs will need to replace Massicci with a new infielder, be it a freshman or a more experienced player transitioning into the shortstop spot. The bullpen remains strong, returning Sloan, Hunt, Andrew Kneussle, J.P. Stevenson, Tyler Smith, and Andrew Sipowicz.
“As far as pitching goes, it’s going to be a real team effort. There’s no real frontrunner for best pitcher; everyone’s very good at doing their own part,” said Sloan. “[I’ll do] what I can pitching and getting the job done, making sure no one has any nerves for the games and basically making sure that guys are ready to go out there and do their best.”
This season’s Griffs will be one of the youngest teams the school has had in a while, with regards to the ratio of upperclassmen to underclassmen.
“I worry less about what our opponents are doing and just trying to take care of our own preparation and getting better and doing the things necessary so that we can be successful over the course of the season,” said McRae. “We’re always looking for guys internally to get better, plus guys that are new to the program to add in their own way.”