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SEASON PREVIEW: 2017 Concordia baseball

By Jake Knabel on Feb. 20, 2017 in Baseball

At a glance
Head coach
: Ryan Dupic (54-45, 3rd year)
2016 record: 28-27 overall, 11-9 GPAC (T-4th place)
Key returners: Jake Adams (OF); Casey Berg (IF); Taylor Bickel (LHP); Ryan Fesmire (C); Kaleb Geiger (IF); Josh Prater (LHP); Logan Ryan (SS); Neil Ryan (RHP)
Key losses: Alex Alstott (OF); Alex Cargin (2B); Taylor Dudley (OF); Mark Harris (RHP)
Key newcomers: Wade Council (OF/LHP); Jake Fosgett (RHP); Jason Galeano (1B/DH); Steven Hernandez (OF); Nick Little (RHP); Jason Munsch (LHP); Thomas Sautel (2B)
2016 GPAC all-conference: Kaleb Geiger (first team); Christian Montero (first team); Alex Alstott (honorable mention); Casey Berg (honorable mention); Mark Harris (honorable mention); Josh Prater (honorable mention)

Outlook
On the heels of back-to-back seasons with school record-breaking win totals, Concordia has the look and feel of a baseball program on the rise. The Bulldogs raised a few eyebrows last spring when they came within one victory of reaching the GPAC championship game. The strong finish likely had something to do with league coaches pegging Concordia third in the GPAC preseason poll.

Third-year head coach Ryan Dupic prefers high expectations. Prior to his first season at the helm of the program, the Bulldogs were picked ninth in the GPAC. Things have changed.

“It’s fun. We like it. It’s fun to be expected to do good things,” Dupic said. “I’d always rather be in that position. I think Morningside and Midland are justifiably seen as the top teams in the league. They’re very good and have played really well in years past. Our finish to last season may have had something to do with people bumping us up a little bit. I think they see us in that mix now and we see ourselves in there as well.”

The program’s revival has been spurred by an offensive attack that has set school records for runs scored in consecutive seasons. Dupic employs a dangerous middle of the order held down by the intimidating duo of first baseman Kaleb Geiger (.347 BA, 7 HR, 50 RBIs) and outfielder Christian Montero (.326, 9 HR, 50 RBIs), who will be counted upon to play the field a lot more than last season. Both first team all-conference mashers slugged better than .580 while combining for 16 home runs in 2016.

Geiger and Montero are the headliners for a veteran group of position players. Last year’s squad muscled up for a single-season school record of 38 home runs. That record could be in jeopardy in 2017.

“There will be five, six people in the lineup that will be able to consistently hit the ball over the fence,” said catcher Ryan Fesmire. “That’s what you watch on SportsCenter. You watch the home runs. This team’s going to hit a lot of home runs this year and score a lot. That’s always a fun thing to watch.”

Geiger, Montero and the likes of outfielder Jake Adams (.275, 4 HR, 32 RBI), Casey Berg (.316 BA, .427 OBP) and Fesmire (.274, .371 OBP) each have extensive collegiate playing experience. Adams earned a conference Gold Glove award and was the hero of the opening day of the GPAC tournament when he drilled two home runs, including a game-winning grand slam to beat Midland. Berg has started the past two years since transferring to Concordia from North Iowa Area Community College. Meanwhile, Fesmire is the elder statesman of the team having played in 95 games as a Bulldog. He’s always good for comic relief when times get tight.

The arrival of Jason Galeano, a transfer from the University of Illinois Springfield, brings another impact bat to the lineup. The native of Brooklyn, N.Y., connected for seven home runs in 148 at bats last year at the NCAA Division II level. Says Dupic of Galeano, “He can really swing it.”

Other position players with starting experience include outfielders Johnny May (.305 BA, .385 OBP, 4 HR) and Tyler Nelson, second baseman Christian Meza (.280 BA, .328 OBP), shortstop Logan Ryan (.266 BA .371 OBP) and catcher Drew Woods (.264, .328 OBP). May hit four homers, including a walk-off versus Briar Cliff, and swiped a team high 11 bases as a rookie. Ryan, a Johnston, Iowa, native like May, started all but two games at shortstop during his freshman season.

“At some point if you’re going to be good, you have to have juniors and seniors that play well,” Dupic said. “We’ll have a lot of juniors and seniors in the lineup this year. I think we’re a little more physical. We’re a little more offensive in nature. We can swing it. We don’t have to rely on trying to get a guy on first and sac bunting him to second. We can just go play and let our guys go hit. I think our lineup is just geared that way.”

With the wealth of returning bats, it will be difficult for newcomers to crack the regular lineup. However, Dupic mentions the likes of outfielders Wade Council and Steven Hernandez and infielder Thomas Sautel as new faces with chances of seeing time in the field. Sautel has positioned himself as a frontrunner for the second base job. Also a left-handed pitcher, Council is referred to by Dupic as a “winner.”

The pitching staff is an area where new arrivals have the most opportunity to contribute, but the leader of the staff is a veteran in lefty Josh Prater. Dupic says that Josh Prater is coming off his best offseason as a Bulldog. Prater won’t overpower hitters, but he’s become effective at keeping them off balance. He ended last season with a run of 20.2 scoreless innings in a row to lower his season ERA to 2.87. Prater is the likely No. 1 starter now with Mark Harris (3.43 ERA in 57.2 innings) having graduated.

Juniors Taylor Bickel (6.92 ERA, 40.1 innings) and Neil Ryan (6.12 ERA, 42.2 innings) are also experienced starters. Their numbers regressed last season as sophomores, but both have shown moments of brilliance. Ryan tossed six shutout innings late in the year at Doane and Bickel worked 9.1 innings in a gutty effort at Midland in his freshman campaign. Other returning arms that got significant use last season are right-handers Casey Hall (8.83 ERA, 17.1 innings), Nic Seaman (5.96 ERA, 25.2 innings), Jared Schipper (5.25 ERA, 24.0 innings) and Tanner Wauhob (9.48 ERA, 31.1 innings). Lefty Cade Moring threw only 4.1 innings in 2016, but figures to get the call more often this spring.

In order for Concordia to meet its high expectations, the pitching staff will have to take a leap forward in 2017.

“The bottom line is we have to perform better,” Dupic said. “We can’t go out there and expect us to score 11 or 12 runs to win a baseball game. It’s really on the pitchers and myself. We have to pitch better. We have to be more consistent. We have to step up and do a better job and, if we do, I think we’ll be really good.”

It may take the early portion of the season to clearly define roles on the pitching staff, but Dupic has a handle on which new hurlers will toe the rubber this season. Freshman righty Nick Little of Lithia, Fla., has made his case to be part of the starting rotation after a strong fall season. Others with the ability to factor into the mix are Council, right-hander Jake Fosgett and lefty Jason Munsch. Though a sophomore, righty Dylan DuRee is set to make his collegiate debut after sitting out last season due to an elbow injury.

If the pitching improves, it could be a fun spring at Plum Creek Park. Says Dupic, “We’re more talented. I think we have a chance to be better on the field. Our players have high expectations this year. We’re excited to go give it a shot.”

Fesmire is expecting a special year. “It’s the first time in the four years I’ve been here that we really have a shot at winning GPAC,” Fesmire said. “It would almost be a disappointment if we didn’t win GPAC. I think with what we have on the table, especially offensively, we should be pretty good.”

The Bulldogs will open up the 2017 season with a four-game series at Bethany College this weekend. Doubleheaders in Lindsborg, Kan., are slated to get started at 1 p.m. CT on both Saturday and Sunday.

More preseason thoughts from Coach Dupic

Late 2016 run

I think it was a very good momentum thing for us. I think it showed what we’re capable of. One of the things we talked about is being more consistent and being able to bring that type of energy, effort and execution each day. The conference tournament was fun. The guys played well. They were very invested in it. We pitched better. That was a big deal. We showed what we’re capable of offensively. We just played better in all facets of the game. Looking back, I think last year was tough at times. We definitely challenged ourselves with our schedule. We played a lot of really good nonconference teams because we wanted to prepare us for conference play. It made it a little bit tough and there were some ups and downs at times. I think there was a really good vibe at the end of the year. I thought it transitioned well into this fall. I thought we were a little bit better this fall.

Offensive success

It starts with recruiting. We obviously brought in some guys that were pretty offensive players like Christian Montero and other guys just to give our lineup more depth. We returned a lot of position players last year and we return a lot of guys this year. At some point if you’re going to be good, you have to have juniors and seniors that play well. We’ll have a lot of juniors and seniors in the lineup this year. I think we’re a little more physical. We’re a little more offensive in nature. We can swing it. We don’t have to rely on trying to get a guy on first and sac bunting him to second. We can just go play and let our guys go hit. I think our lineup is just geared that way.

Geiger and Montero

It’s fun to think about. They’re both great kids and they’re very talented players, very strong. When the other team comes in to play, I’m sure they’re thinking, ‘We have to make sure we handle these guys.’ It’s a really nice thing to have a middle of the order that you feel is dangerous. I think both are capable of doing really special things. If we can get them clicking at the same time it should be a lot of fun. I think we probably have a little bit better depth in front of them and behind them, which should help a lot, too. We don’t want to put pressure on them and say that they have to carry us, but there’s no question being able to write them in the lineup every day is a nice thing.

Other veterans (Adams, Berg, Fesmire, etc)

They’ve played a lot of baseball. They understand what they’re getting into. They know how this works. They have great experience. Casey’s been a very consistent player for two years now for us. We’ll really be looking for him to set the table at the top of the lineup. Jake is a guy that, last year was so good for him to get that under his belt to get back into the swing of things. He didn’t play baseball for a year so he was just getting back into it. He’s just such a steady guy and a good kid. Fesmire is the same. We have high expectations for them. They’re seniors and they’ve all played for multiple years. It’s a matter of them going out and executing. If we can get them going, it will lengthen our lineup.

Pitching

Pitching is the key. We didn’t pitch well enough last year. We feel good about Nick Little, a freshman from Florida. He’s been very good for us. He had a great fall. From the time he came in, he’s just done everything he needs to do to be able to be a rotation guy. Josh Prater probably had the best offseason he’s had since he’s been at Concordia. He had a great summer. He played in a really good league and had a good fall. We need both of those two a lot in terms of our starting rotation. Neil Ryan is a guy who has pitched for us for two years and will be in that rotation again. We need him to step forward. He’s been very good so far in January and February so that’s good to see. After that it’s going to be some younger guys and a few returners. Jason Munsch is a freshman we really like. Cade Moring has made some big progress. So has Nic Seaman. Jake Fosgett is a freshman we like. Dylan Duree is a sophomore that has worked really hard and will pitch for us. He did not throw last year. He had a little bit of an elbow issue. He has really come on well. Tanner Wauhob pitched well for us in the conference tournament. Our depth is better.

We can talk all we want. The bottom line is we have to perform better. We can’t go out there and expect us to score 11 or 12 runs to win a baseball game. It’s really on the pitchers and myself. We have to pitch better. We have to be more consistent. We have to step up and do a better job and if we do, I think we’ll be really good.

Pitching roles

We are trying to figure out the closer spot. I think Cade Moring and Nic Seaman are guys with the capability of doing it. I think Dylan Duree could do it at times. There is another guy or two, but I think we need to let them get some experience first. One of the things we’re going to have to do is be more flexible in our bullpen. Guys are going to have to be ready to pitch when their name is called. I’m not sure if we’ll start the season with a set closer, but we think we have guys capable of getting outs.

Newcomers

Offensively we have a lot of returners, so it’s tough to crack the lineup right now. Jason Galeano is a transfer at semester that can really swing it and will play for us. We like him a lot. We think he’ll have a good year for us. We have a couple of guys pushing like Wade Council and Steven Hernandez. They do a nice job in the outfield. You’re going to see a lot of newcomers on the mound – Nick Little, Jake Fosgett and Jason Munsch. Wade is a winner. He can move around and play all over and he can swing it. You’re going to see those guys. There are some other freshmen pushing for time. I think you’re going to see some new guys on the mound that can help us a little bit. Brook Stewart is another guy who transferred and is in the mix. We’ll probably see it more in pitching than in the lineup. That makes sense. We’re a little further ahead offensively.

Establishing culture

It’s a hard thing to do. You get so much tunnel vision with where you’re at, especially this time of year. It’s just so hard to step back and think about it. I’m very thankful. It’s coming along very well. It’s a different program now than it was before. It doesn’t mean it was bad before, it just means we’re moving forward. It’s been very good. I have great trust in our players. I think they’re really good kids. They’re doing the things they’re supposed to do, and I’m pleased with that. Our culture is much improved, but it’s a people-driven thing. All that said, we’re more talented. I think we have a chance to be better on the field. Our players have high expectations this year. We’re excited to go give it a shot.

Higher expectations

It’s fun. We like it. It’s fun to be expected to do good things. I’d always rather be in that position. I think Morningside and Midland are justifiably seen as the top teams in the league. They’re very good and have played really well in years past. Our finish to last season may have had something to do with people bumping us up a little bit. I think they see us in that mix now and we see ourselves in there as well. There’s just a lot of work to be done and a lot of baseball to be played. We have to keep our head down and keep focusing every day and keep trying to get better.