Baseball team starts off season hot
When the Webster University baseball program lost 10 seniors from last year’s 35-11 team, the 2011 campaign could have easily been viewed as a potential rebuilding year.
But even with 14 freshmen and four seniors on this year’s roster, coach Bill Kurich would rather reload than rebuild.
“This freshmen class is as strong as we’ve ever had,” Kurich said. “That’s been pretty evident since day one in the fall. It’s not a rebuilding process for us; I stress that every day. It’s not, ‘Hey we’re young and we’re going to get better.’ It’s, ‘Hey we’re young and we’re going to win right now.’ We owe it to the seniors to win this year and to compete at the same level we have for the last couple of years.”
Kurich, who is in his fifth year at the helm, is pleased with what he’s seen from his team so far. Despite a freshmen-heavy roster, the Gorloks were ranked in national preseason polls and were voted as the favorite to win the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference by SLIAC coaches.
The preseason hype surrounding Webster doesn’t appear to have affected the team in the early stages of the season. Webster’s season began over spring break, as the Gorloks won six of their first seven games against top-notch competition in the RussMatt Central Florida Invitational.
Four of Webster’s seven games were decided by three runs or less and two of the games went into extra innings. The Gorloks’ pitching staff accumulated a 2.32 ERA in 62 innings of work.
Starting pitchers David Mueller, a junior right-hander, and Zach Schneider, a freshman left-hander, were impressive in their four combined starts. Mueller struck out 13 batters and recorded a 1.76 ERA on his way to a 2-0 record. For his efforts, Mueller was named the SLIAC pitcher of the week for March 7-13.
Schneider struck out 15 and walked three in his first two starts as a Gorlok. Although he dropped his first decision in a 3-0 loss to Beloit College on March 6, Schneider rebounded and earned his first collegiate win with a 5-4 victory over Suffolk University on March 11. Kurich was happy with how his freshmen pitchers performed in Florida.
“They went out there for the first college outing in their life, competed with very good teams and were successful,” Kurich said. “When it came time to make a big pitch or get a big out, they were able to step up and do that, which was a big part of our success down there.”
Mueller, who was named to the All-Central Region second team last year, anchors a young but talented pitching staff that has already shown flashes of dominance. Mueller said the underclassmen have developed since the beginning of the school year.
“Baseball, being the latest season, allows the freshmen to really grow into almost sophomores by the time they’re playing games,” Mueller said. “Everybody’s really matured over the year already, and only more maturity is going to come throughout the rest of the year.”
Webster will try to improve upon their 6-1 record when they take on Franklin College and Concordia University in back-to-back games on March 19 at noon and 3 p.m., respectively. Both games will be played at GCS Ballpark in Sauget, Illinois. The Gorloks’ game against Wartburg College on March 20 at 4 p.m. will also be at Webster’s home ballpark.
For as much success as Webster had in this year’s invitational, this hasn’t been the case in previous seasons. Last year, the Gorloks went 3-2 in the invitational, and in 2009, the team went 1-6.
Although the event isn’t the best determinant of how a team’s season will play out because it’s so early in the season, Kurich took his team to Florida with the intention of winning games.
“The coaching staff worked hard in the off-season to identify our players, to make sure that we knew exactly what we were getting,” Kurich said. “We had a pretty good idea of what we had going down there through our early practices and our recruiting process. We go down there expecting to win. It’s a lot nicer to come back 6-1; now, we’re trying to fine-tune the things that we need to do.”
Kurich pointed to defense as an area where the team needs to improve. Webster committed 15 errors and had a fielding percentage of .945 for the invitational, but Kurich said the team needs to make more plays to help out whoever is on the mound.
“Defense is a concentration and repetition thing, and we need to focus on that,” Kurich said. “We will this entire week. If we’re going to play with the best teams in the country, we’ve got to play better defense than we did this past week.”
Offensively, the Gorloks were solid during the invitational, though the team was shut out once. Kurich said he isn’t too worried about the offense, as he believes the hits will come as players get more at-bats and become more comfortable at the plate.
Webster has plenty of options offensively, even after losing several key players from last season’s team, which was an offensive juggernaut that put up record-breaking numbers. Returnees Cody Stevenson, a sophomore who was named the SLIAC Newcomer of the Year last season, and Craig Schaefer, a senior who earned an All-Central Region third team nomination last season, are back to power Webster’s lineup.
Seniors Anthony Genna, Paul Kienker and Nathan Shelton are everyday players who can hit for contact and power. Shelton, a utility infielder, said he likes the way the team is gelling so far.
“You have so many guys, and to implement the system we use, it can be kind of confusing,” Shelton said. “Luckily, there are a couple of us seniors that have been here for four years and we’re used to it. Having some young guys is nice; they’re excited to play. It’s their first year playing college baseball, and they’re out there having fun.”
Webster has won the SLIAC postseason tournament and qualified for the NCAA Division III regional tournament two of the last three years. The Gorloks have won the SLIAC regular season title four straight years. Kurich thinks this team has the ability to make it five championships in a row and make some serious noise in the national tournament.
Kurich said the team’s first goal is to come together as a unit. After that, the team wants to win the conference championship and put themselves in a position to make a run in the NCAA tournament.
“We’ve been pretty close to the College World Series,” Kurich said. “The next step for the program is to get to the College World Series and to be one of those final eight teams in the country. We’ve got to get better, but it’s not completely off in the distance. It’s attainable, and we’ve got a good group of young men who understand that. We’re excited about the prospects for where we’re going to be at the end of the year in terms of the national scene.”