The Middlebury baseball team ushers in a new era as Mike Leonard takes over the program following the retirement of its longtime head coach Bob Smith. With the loss of just five seniors from that squad, the team is experienced and ready to take on the 2017 campaign.
Leonard becomes just the fourth baseball coach at the College since 1952, coming to Middlebury following six years at Bates. A former Boston Red Sox minor leaguer and All-Big East catcher at the University of Connecticut, Leonard's teams saw significant improvement during his tenure with the Bobcats, placing five players under his watch on the NESCAC All-Conference First Team.
Headed into 2017, the Panthers' roster features a great mix of all classes with five seniors, eight juniors and nine sophomores along with several first-year players. Four of the team's top hitters as well as one pitcher were lost to graduation. Corner infielder/pitcher Joe MacDonald and corner infielder John Luke, catcher Max Araya and outfielder Garrett Werner all received their diplomas.
MacDonald played in 92 games during his four years with a .262 batting average, including a .308 mark last season, to go along with three career home runs, 48 runs batted in and 29 runs at the plate. On the mound, he appeared in 18 contests with nine starts, mainly his final two years, tossing 71.2 innings for the Panthers. Araya was a mainstay behind the plate, appearing in 116 games with a .292 batting average, 49 runs batted in, 59 runs, 51 walks and 23 doubles, while Werner battled injuries with 68 games played.
Despite the losses due to graduation, the Panthers return depth both in the field and on the mound from a team who saw a seven-game improvement a season ago.
"We will need to fill those holes left in the lineup as well as in the rotation," said Leonard. "The returning players have worked hard since the end of last season and have showed tremendous commitment throughout the off-season to becoming better players. Our coaching staff is excited to see the progress made and how this team competes in game action."
Up the middle of the infield, several players will be competing for innings. Senior Johnny Read provides experience and stability for Middlebury last year. Read was a mainstay at shortstop, starting 25 contests with 10 RBI along with 12 runs scored, while his 55 assists were second on the Panthers. Sophomore Spencer Tonies saw action in 14 games with a .346 batting average and 11 RBI in 2016.
Others who saw action in the middle of the diamond or behind the plate were juniors Jake Turtel and Sebastian Sanchez, along with sophomore Phil Bernstein. Turtel logged time mainly at second base, playing in 32 games with a .269 average, ranking second on the team with 24 runs scored. Sanchez played in a handful of games, while Bernstein logged playing time in 20 games with 19 starts, mainly behind the plate with a total of nine RBI. Those returners along with some first-year players will battle for innings.
On the corner infield positions, senior first baseman and captain Jason Lock returns after battling injuries last season. In limited action, Lock played in 16 games in 2016 with nine starts and batted .250 with seven RBI and eight runs scored. Junior Raj Palekar also worked his way through injuries and saw time at third base. He appeared in 15 games last spring, posting nine RBI, seven walks and seven runs scored.
In the outfield, senior Ryan Rizzo, a wide receiver on the Panther football team, junior Brendan Donohue and sophomore Sam Graf each return with experience. Rizzo will look to utilize his speed on the base paths and in the outfield after hitting .243 in 17 games a season ago. Donohue had a solid second spring with a .316 batting average in 27 games, scoring 11 runs and producing 11 runs batted in as well as a pair of triples. Graf had a good initial season for the Panthers, hitting .256 with a team-best three home runs to go along with 19 RBI and five doubles. He ranked second on the team with 87 putouts and was third with 22 runs scored.
Battling for a starting spot along with Graf and Rizzo will be a pair of juniors who each saw playing time last spring. Drew Coash (.250, HR, 4 RBI) and Andrew Corcoran return to add experience for the Panthers, while Corcoran could also log innings on the hill.
On the mound, the Panthers will have some experienced arms including junior Robert Erickson, who appeared in eight games with a pair of starts a year ago. The tall right-hander logged 16.1 innings pitched last spring. Sophomore Colby Morris appeared in 10 games last season with eight starts, hurling a team-high 51.0 innings, while striking out 26 and walking just 15 with three complete games.
Others who will battle in camp for the starting spots will be seniors Tucker Meredith, Jake Stalcup, and Dylan Takamori. Stalcup appeared in six games last season, and will look to be one of Leonard's reliable arms both in a starting role and out of the bullpen, while Meredith (1-3, 18.1 IP, 3.93 ERA) worked his way back from surgery and appeared in five games with four starts. Takamori went 2-0 with a 5.21 ERA with a team-best 13 appearances out of the bullpen. The lefthander struck out 16 batters in 19 innings of work.
Sophomores Conor Himstead (1-1, seven appearances, 6.23 ERA, 17.1 IP) and Colin Waters (2-0, 6 app, 3 GS, 17.0 IP) as well as Donohue and a talented group of first-year players will also battle for playing time and innings this spring.
"I expect a lot of players to see playing time this spring and believe there will be a lot of competition for positions," said Leonard. "We have a close-knit group of guys who are committed to working hard and making each other better on a daily basis. As a team, we need to focus on controlling the little things and staying consistent with our process regardless of past results."
The Panthers' schedule is daunting early in the season as the blue and white will play their first 17 games on the road. The Panthers will play a majority of those games during their annual spring break trip to Arizona, concluding the voyage with a three-game NESCAC West series against Williams. After a NESCAC West three-game set at Amherst the first weekend of April, Middlebury will open its home season on April 11 with a game against Plattsburgh State.
"The bar has been raised for Middlebury baseball and I think we'll need to compete at a higher level than ever before to get to where we want to be on a consistent basis," said Leonard. "This group is excited to get started with the season and I expect us to compete with a high level of energy which should help us through the early part of the season," noted Leonard about the early schedule. "I love our team chemistry and think that will have a great influence on how we manage the early season ups and downs."