Season Preview: Baseball sets sights on sixth consecutive winning season, second straight trip to OAC Tournament in 2019

Season Preview: Baseball sets sights on sixth consecutive winning season, second straight trip to OAC Tournament in 2019

By Blake Moore

ADA — The Ohio Northern baseball program seeks its sixth consecutive winning season and its second straight trip to the Ohio Athletic Conference Tournament during the 2019 campaign under eighth-year head coach Gene Stechschulte.

Last season, the Polar Bears compiled a 27-15 overall record and an 11-7 league mark, which tied for third in the final OAC standings. Due to their efforts, Northern qualified for the OAC postseason for the first time since the 2000 campaign.

In addition, last year's squad rewrote the ONU record books, registering 466 base hits to surpass the previous program record established in 1986. The team also tallied a school-record 83 doubles during the campaign.

"Last year, we overachieved as a program and won many close games," Stechschulte stated. "Setting the season records in hits and doubles was a surprising result, and our pitching continued to be a strong point - we pitched well and had good depth on our staff. That made for a good year overall."

Stechschulte and his staff will welcome back 20 letterwinners, four returning All-OAC honorees, and two All-Region selections from the 2018 squad. Meanwhile, the program adds 12 freshmen student-athletes to the 2019 roster, who will look to make an impact early in their collegiate careers.

"We will rely on our returners to take pressure off the less experienced players as they become comfortable in their new roles. However, our sophomore and freshmen classes will have several opportunities to play this season, especially those in the infield and outfield positions."

The following is a breakdown of the 2019 Ohio Northern baseball team, according to position:

Pitching

Under Stechschulte's tutelage, the Polar Bear pitching staff has become a valuable component to the team's success over the past eight seasons. This will also hold true in the upcoming campaign when ONU returns 10 lettermen to the mound in the 2019 season.

"We have most of our pitchers back from last season," Stechschulte noted. "Coach (Sam) Slavik does a great job with our staff, and we return experience and depth this year. Early on, the pitching rotation will depend upon who is game-ready and may include some players who threw limited innings last year. This will continue to build and sustain our depth on the mound."

Junior pitcher Josh Mohr (Oregon/Clay) will return as a top option for Ohio Northern after earning First-Team All-OAC kudos and ABCA/Rawlings All-Mideast Region Second-Team honors in 2018.

The southpaw registered the second-lowest ERA (1.93) in the OAC among qualifying pitchers and topped Northern with 57 strikeouts one year ago. He tossed 56.0 innings in 10 total appearances last season to post a 5-2 overall record.

Junior right-hander Nate Bye (Thorntown, Ind./Western Boone) also picked up All-OAC accolades last season, earning Honorable Mention status.

He started eight contests and posted the seventh-best ERA in the conference with a 2.73 mark in 52.2 innings. The junior was also named to the OAC All-Tournament Team for his efforts in the postseason run. 

Two-time lettermen Scott Beaton (Novi, Mich.), Jack Schaller (Bowling Green), and Troy Wagner (Liberty Township/Lakota West) will return to provide some added experience on the mound this season.

In 2018, Beaton reset the single-season pitching appearances record with 23 as a late-game relief pitcher. The junior hurler recorded a 2.34 ERA, which ranked third-best in the league, tallied two saves, and was named Academic All-OAC for the Polar Bears.

Meanwhile, Schaller started six contests and appeared in nine total games last season to post a 3.30 ERA in 30.0 innings. He would strike out 41 batters, including a career-high 11 batsmen on two separate occasions.

Wagner appeared in six games and threw 17.2 innings for the Polar Bears in 2018. He compiled a 1-0 record and struck out nine batters during his sophomore campaign.

Seniors Blake Lester (Chesepeake) and Jackson Buda (Norton), juniors Tommy Fleser (Sunbury/Big Walnut) and Devin Johnson (Wooster), and sophomores James Fisher (Castalia/Margaretta) and Alex Dodson (West Chester/Lakota West) will look to fill remaining spots in the rotation after being on last season's roster.

Infield

Ohio Northern will return seven letterwinners, two All-OAC honoress, and one All-Region selection to the infield this season.

Seniors Luke Klinehoffer (Zanesville/John Glenn) and Caleb Thomas (Strongsville) enter their final collegiate campaigns after earning First-Team All-OAC kudos in 2018.

Klinehoffer started 38 contests at third base and led off the Polar Bear offense in all 41 games last season. For his efforts, he also earned D3Baseball.com and ABCA/Rawlings All-Mideast Region honors. 

During his junior campaign, the Zanesville product broke the Ohio Northern single-season hit record with 71 base hits. Additionally, the senior ranked second in the OAC with a .399 batting average and produced 16 doubles and four home runs.

Thomas returns after being named a CoSIDA Academic All-American and starting all 41 contests at first base, designated hitter, and the outfield last season. In his junior campaign, he recorded a .289 batting average and led the program with 38 RBI.

Junior Phil Buckingham (Wayne/Elmwood) and sophomores Tyler Randick (Flushing, Mich.), Michael Rocco (Orlando, Fla./Zionsville, Ind.), Will Davis (Upper Arlington/Bishop Watterson), and Matthew Burkett (Maumee) will also return and provide some depth after lettering last season.

"We have moved several position players for the upcoming season. While Luke played primarily at third base last season, we will ask him to play multiple positions this season, including some outfield. That should give Tyler an opportunity to play the infield along with some catching responsibilities. Caleb will serve as our designated hitter and likely see more playing time at first base this season, sharing time with Will and Matt. Phil will make the move from right field to his more natural position at second base, and Michael will battle for our starting shortstop opening."

Outfield

Junior Jake Gherardi (Youngstown/Austintown-Fitch) and sophomores Krue Thwaits (Greenville/Milton Union) and Andy Mills (Cincinnati/St. Xavier) will all return to the outfield this season after lettering one year ago.

Gherardi is a two-time letterwinner at Ohio Northern and has appeared in 22 career games with eight starts. In two seasons, he has totaled seven hits and amassed a .368 career on-base percentage.

Meanwhile, Thwaits started seven games and appeared in 28 total contests as a freshman last spring. The Greenville native has produced nine career hits, three stolen bases, and scored 10 runs in one season at ONU.

Mills primarily served as a pinch-runner and a defensive replacement in the outfield last season, scoring seven runs and going one-for-five at the plate.

"Krue will get the first chance for the starting position in center field after a solid freshman season. Meanwhile, Jake and Andy are going to be top options for the right field opening. Jake has some experience in the position, and Andy is one of our best defensive players. We will fill other roles with guys like Caleb, Luke, Will, and Matt, who can all play multiple positions."

Schedule

The 2019 nonconference slate will be headlined by the program's annual Spring Break trip to warmer climates. This year, the Polar Bears will compete in the RussMatt Invitational in Florida, playing 10 contests between Sunday, March 3 and Sunday, March 10.

Ohio Northern will raise the curtain on its 11-game home schedule Tuesday, March 12 with a single game against area rival Bluffton at Wander Field. The contest is set for a 4 p.m. start.

The remaining nonconference schedule includes road contests against Trine (Ind.), Defiance, Denison, Thomas More (Ky.), Wittenberg, and Hiram and home dates with Thomas More and Allegheny (Pa.).

The Polar Bears are scheduled to begin their OAC schedule on Saturday, March 23 with a road trip doubleheader at Heidelberg.

Northern will also travel to Baldwin Wallace, John Carroll, Marietta, and Wilmington during the conference slate while they play host to Capital, Mount Union, Otterbein, and Muskingum.

The four-team OAC Tournament will be held from May 9-11.

"Our 10-game Florida trip will test our depth, but it also gives me the opportunity to move guys around the field and form our starting lineup for the remaining year," Stechschulte remarked. "Hopefully, we can play well and build some momentum early with these games."

"Looking at the OAC, any team can beat you. There are no easy outings. There will be five to six teams this season likely battling for the top spot in the league. If our pitching develops like it has in the past, we should be able to have some success in conference play this year."