After parting ways in mid-March, members of the Concordia University Baseball team reunited when in-person classes resumed in August. The 2020 season ended so abruptly after a March 13 doubleheader sweep of Briar Cliff that several seniors with eligibility remaining made the decision to return. The result is a roster featuring greater quality of depth than Head Coach Ryan Dupic would have expected to bring back.
The Bulldogs finished last spring at 14-7 overall. They had barely returned from a trip to Tucson, Ariz., when the season went dark. This fall brought a new opportunity and another chance at a senior season for the likes of Evan Bohman, Beau Dorman, Lukas Diehm and Jake Fosgett, to name a few.
“I think it’s hopefully a compliment to the enjoyment they have of being part of the program,” Dupic said. “When you’re a senior and your season ends so abruptly like that, I think you’re at least hopeful to have a different finish to your career and a chance to write a different chapter. It’s great to have so many guys back. It wasn’t something we were expecting when we were putting together a recruiting class for this year. We definitely have a little more depth at certain spots than we anticipated having. Hopefully that will be helpful for us come spring.”
Of course no one does cartwheels over preseason polls, but Concordia’s placement atop the official GPAC rankings (released on Nov. 2) shows the type of respect the program has earned. Prior to the 2020 campaign, the Bulldogs appeared at No. 24 in the Perfect Game NAIA preseason top 25. It was the first time the program had ever received a national ranking in a major poll (official NAIA poll or otherwise). Concordia hopes that this fall laid the groundwork for a possible run at a reappearance in the top 25 in 2021.
Fall ball did have a bit of a twist due to the fact that classes were moved up to begin on Aug. 10. Dupic says that the fall training period remained similar to previous years other than taking place earlier in the calendar. Like any activity these days, specific protocols have had to be followed. As Dupic points out, baseball has an advantage in that many aspects of the game naturally lend to players being physically distanced.
Team practices and intra-squads took place during an intense five-week period. Once that window closed, the Bulldogs continued to train in the weight room while progressing into one-on-one skill development. The preparedness for the opening of fall ball varied by individual, based on the differences in summer opportunities. Dupic was just happy to have everyone back.
Said Dupic, “It felt a lot more normal. We had guys who may not have picked up a ball or bat for months at a time and we had guys who had been training and playing in a summer league and were obviously closer to their peak. That was part of transitioning back into it. It was nice to compete and play some games. We had to work through some stuff from time to time, but it felt good to be back on the field.”
Most notable among the departures, dominant lefty hurler Jason Munsch has graduated and is still waiting to report to the Milwaukee Brewers organization. Munsch was out-of-this-world last spring when he struck out 59 hitters without allowing a single earned run in 26 innings. The performance earned him a Major League Baseball free agent contract.
Dupic does not expect anyone to be that unhittable this coming season, but the overall depth in the pitching staff may be better. Said Dupic, “We still had a lot of questions after the top tier of our staff. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have guys doing some good things, but we needed more consistency. I think this staff has the potential to have much better depth through the rotation. In terms of the entire rotation, the bullpen and having a larger volume of pitchers who can get guys out – I think we’ll be better in that light.”
Based on last season’s results, Nick Little (4-0, 1.32 ERA in 27.1 IP) is the clear headlining returner. Top bullpen arms such as Zach Pinkerton and Ryan Samuelson are also back in the fold. As a staff, Concordia racked up 221 strikeouts through last season’s 151 innings.
As a program, Concordia continues to embrace technological advances that provide useful data. The HitTrax system (used in the on-campus hitting facility) supplies information like exit velocity and travel distance of batted balls while pitchers have thrown with a Diamond Kinetics ball that helps measure certain pitch characteristics.
Anyone who follows new hitting coach Caleb Lang on Twitter knows he’s been impressed by the potential of the position players. This week the team held an exit velocity competition. In the final of the bracket, Jesse Garcia beat out Keaton Candor with a ball that left the bat at 116 miles per hour. Not so coincidentally, Garcia (seven homers) and Candor (five homers) were the team’s leading power hitters this past spring. The lineup lost two reliable veterans in Wade Council and Thomas Sautel, but the Bulldogs return just about everybody else.
In other words, the expectations on the inside appropriately match the lofty expectations from the outside. Prior to last season, Council talked about the desire to make it out of the NAIA opening round. For the teams that advance to such an elite level, it starts with a productive fall. Says Dupic of the preseason polls, “It’s a great acknowledgement of past performance. Anybody would like to be acknowledged for having success. We appreciate that recognition that things have gone fairly well. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but I’m glad the program is at a point where we can talk about high expectations and try to sustain that.”
Dupic’s staff has a bit of a different look with Lang on board full-time. Dupic will also be assisted by Jonas Lovin (second year in the program), graduate assistant Wade Council and volunteer Logan Ryan (latter two are both alums). Dupic likes having the mix of alums as well as assistants who bring experience and ideas from other programs.
The official start to the season (Feb. 13) remains roughly three months out. As part of the altered academic calendar, the team will enjoy an extended semester break just like the rest of the student body. Dupic is putting it on his players to take individual responsibility to get their work in. Once the second semester hits, it won’t be long before the first pitch of the 2021 season is thrown. Said Dupic, “Hopefully we can maximize this time and see it as a time of growth.”