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Season Preview: 2023 Concordia Baseball

By Jacob Knabel on Jan. 23, 2023 in Baseball

Head Coach: Ryan Dupic (242-145-1, 9th year); five GPAC titles; four national tournament appearances (one NAIA World Series berth)
2022 Record: 40-17-1, 20-8 GPAC (2nd); GPAC tournament champions; NAIA national qualifier
Key Returners: Jayden Adams (2B); Ben Berg (C); Alec Blakestad (OF); Caden Bugarske (RHP); Jakob Faulk (INF); Jesse Garcia (1B); Joey Grabanski (OF); Christian Gutierrez (RHP); Alex Johnson (RHP); Caden Johnson (RHP); Ty Nekoliczak (SS); Jaidan Quinn (3B); Tanner Tompkins (C).
Key Losses: Nathan Buckallew (RHP); Keaton Candor (OF); Shane Whittaker (RHP).
Key Newcomers: Blake Benson (LHP); Frankie Cresta (RHP); Calvin Davis (INF); Kellen Ingram (RHP); Maverick Wylder (RHP).
2022 GPAC All-Conference: Jayden Adams (First Team); Joey Grabanski (First Team); Jaidan Quinn (First Team); Alex Johnson (First Team); Caden Johnson (First Team); Alec Blakestad (Second Team); Keaton Candor (Second Team); Ben Berg (Honorable Mention); Jesse Garcia (Honorable Mention); Christian Gutierrez (Honorable Mention): Ty Nekoliczak (Honorable Mention); Tanner Tompkins (Honorable Mention).
2022 NAIA All-America: Jayden Adams (Honorable Mention).

Outlook

In following up the program’s first-ever NAIA World Series berth, the 2022 Concordia University Baseball team proved the Bulldogs have staying power on the national landscape. Concordia had previously won GPAC championships in 2017 and 2019, but the 2021 and 2022 campaigns blew away all reasonable expectations for a program that had never won a GPAC title or reached the national tournament prior to Head Coach Ryan Dupic’s arrival in 2015. The scary thing about this 2023 squad? It returns 11 of the 12 players who earned All-GPAC honors in ’22.

In other words, Dupic and company can’t hide from the expectations even if they want to. The Bulldogs appeared at No. 21 in the NAIA preseason coaches’ poll following back-to-back 40-win seasons (combined two-year record of 82-29-1). Concordia is among the teams that can realistically see themselves reaching Lewiston, Idaho, site of the NAIA World Series.

“It’s understood that our team would like to do that, like any team in the country would,” Dupic said. “It’s certainly not the lead of our meetings and communication. We have a lot of process-oriented things that we’re going to continue to try to grow on. That’s how we’ve built the program – continuing to make progress as we go. I really do believe in that. It’s something that we want to do and it’s a goal we have. We want to get back there, compete at a high level and be the best team we can possibly be. I think that can be accomplished if we make growth week-by-week and day-by-day. That’s where our focus is on right now.”

If that sounds familiar it’s because Dupic has repeated similar words of wisdom often over the past several years as the program has continued its upward trend. The Bulldogs are not going to mess with a formula that works. The formula involves collecting hitters who drive the ball and pitchers who miss bats. The ’21 World Series qualifier pounded away for 90 home runs and 468 runs scored before the ’22 team set a new bar with 113 homers and 516 runs. Only two teams nationally left the yard more often in 2022 – Southeastern (123) and Tabor (118).

There’s more to the success than the raw numbers. The character of the program was put on display last May when Concordia dropped its opening game of the GPAC tournament and proceeded to win five straight conference postseason games, capping the run with a 7-6 walk-off celebration over Jamestown in the championship. The Bulldogs then lost their first game of the NAIA national tournament opening round and then rattled off four consecutive victories while coming up one shy of a return to the World Series. Those things can only happen when a strong culture is present.

“Definitely the connections we build form day one,” said second baseman Jay Adams of the program’s secrets to success. “People come in – and we have conversations and meetings about it – we want to make sure that freshmen feel comfortable and can be themselves. I think that goes a long way for you to come to practice and you’re able to be yourself. You’re not hiding anything. We push everyone to be the best person they can be, and everyone’s for each other. We don’t hold anything against people. That really helps when we get together on the field.”

A star from Waverly, Neb., Adams found himself in the middle of the team’s great home run chase of 2022. When the dust settled, four Bulldogs had reached 18 or more home runs: Jaidan Quinn (19), Adams (18), Joey Grabanski (18) and Keaton Candor (18). First Team All-GPAC honorees Adams, Grabanski and Quinn all return to help form the backbone of what again figures to stand out as one of the NAIA’s most potent lineups. Adams (2B) and Quinn (3B) are part of an infield that welcomes back every starter, including the accomplished Jesse Garcia at first base and Ty Nekoliczak at shortstop.

Candor (starter in right field) departed after breaking numerous program career records, such as standards for home runs (47) and RBIs (188), and will be missed after his fine five-year run. The outfield remains in good hands with Grabanski in left and breakout star Alec Blakestad in center. That leaves one spot up for grabs. At catcher, veteran Ben Berg is seeking a healthy campaign that figures to be his best yet as a Bulldog. He will be spelled at times by Tanner Tompkins, who burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2022. Tompkins is also a candidate to DH when not catching. Others in the mix include Jakob Faulk and Teyt Johnson, two additional players with strong track records. Johnson held down center field in the ’22 postseason and rose to the occasion with stellar performances.

It won’t be easy for Dupic to fill out a lineup card. Proven sluggers like Adams, Garcia, Grabanski and Quinn could all hit in the No. 3 slot for a lot of teams. Said Dupic, “It gives us really good stability. You’re talking about a lot of older and experienced players who have had success already and now have a chance to come back and provide great depth to the lineup. They’ve been through this stuff before. It highlights how important it is to have good players but also guys who continue to grow and improve like Alec Blakestad and Ty Nekoliczak. You’re talking about some really good hitters in guys like Jay, Joey, Quinn and Jesse. They’ve had great success here. Ben Berg was off to a great start last year and then had an injury flare up. We’re excited to see him – he had a great fall. We’re looking for him to bust out a little bit. It’s a group that has a lot of depth and is certainly the strength of our program right now.”

While Dupic and hitting coach Caleb Lang have a good understanding of what they have from a position player perspective, there’s a focus on honing the abilities of a pitching staff that seems likely to improve upon last season’s team ERA of 4.47. Each of the team’s four main starters from ’22 return: Caden Bugarske (8-3, 4.93 ERA), Christian Gutierrez (8-1, 4.38 ERA), Alex Johnson (7-1, 2.77 ERA) and Caden Johnson (8-2, 3.45 ERA). Their combined records were 31-7. In addition, both Johnsons were recognized with first team all-conference recognition.

Not only that, Concordia welcomes back its most heavily used reliever, Jacob Lycan, from last season and has fortified the staff with transfers. Bulldog fans are likely to see a lot of lefty Blake Benson (NCAA D-III University of the Ozarks) and righties Frankie Cresta (NCAA D-I Tennessee Tech) and Kellen Ingram (NAIA Shawnee State University). Cresta posted a 3.68 ERA in 29.1 innings as a reliever at the Division I level in 2022. Said Dupic of the influx of arms, “I have high expectations for all three guys. I’m hoping they can provide some really good depth for us. One thing that is clear with pitching is you can never have enough of it. We need some of our newcomers to do a good job and we also need some of our other players to grow and develop, so we can be our best as the season progresses.”

Considering the talent on board, Dupic scheduled appropriately. The opening weekend of action features matchups with No. 5 Bellevue University and No. 11 Oklahoma City University. A Bulldog Baseball team has never taken on such a challenging nonconference slate as it will see this spring.

Said Dupic, “We’ll be challenged at a very high level in the early parts of our season, there’s no question about it. It’s definitely the best schedule we’ve ever had since I’ve been here. We’re going to learn a lot about our team. Our goal is to go out there and compete right away. We’ll see where we’re at and learn a lot from it.”

One can also look at it from the other side. Concordia will challenge its opponents with a lineup that has shown it can excel throughout the course of a season – and at the national tournament. Said Adams, “I love talking about that because that’s scary. Seeing 100-plus home runs in anything is ridiculous. Looking back on that now, how can you throw to that lineup? Anyone could put one out at any time and change a game. That’s our style of offense – a lot of power. We take pride in that. We practice that. We want to hit for extra bases because it pays off.”

The 2023 schedule is slated to open the weekend of Feb. 11-12 in Oklahoma City. Over those two dates, the Bulldogs will take on Oklahoma City twice and Bellevue once. Another major highlight of the slate will be the trip to Florida over spring break. Conference play will get started on March 18 when Jamestown is scheduled to make a visit to Plum Creek Park.