VIDEO: Despite injuries, baseball team aims for 6th straight SLIAC title


If the Webster University baseball team wants to capture its sixth straight St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title, the Gorloks will have to overcome preseason setbacks. Four of the 13 returning players and three freshmen are currently injured or had offseason surgery that will keep them out of commission for the entire season.

Video by Sam Masterson

Last season, the Gorloks nabbed their fifth consecutive SLIAC crown on their way to making the NCAA Division III tournament. In that tournament, Webster knocked off Christopher Newport University, the No.1-ranked Division III team in the country at the time, in the first round. Webster was eliminated by Piedmont College later in the tournament.

Webster coach Bill Kurich said last year’s team proved its abilities with the Gorloks’ success.
“As we learned last year, we’re as good as anybody in the country when we play well,” Kurich said. “It’s a matter of putting together a good team with good depth that plays well at the right time.”

Sophomore pitcher Zach Schneider will more than likely miss the entire season as well due to a shoulder injury. He was 7-4 with a 1.86 ERA and led the Gorloks in wins in 2011. Infielder Max Oppenheimer, outfielder Jordan Stoulp and pitcher Gary Yearout — all freshmen — are set to miss the entire 2012 season as well.

Some new pitchers will join the Gorloks in 2012 to help ease the staff’s workload. These newcomers include juniors Ryan Martinez, Shaheen Shabrou and Cody Hafeli and freshman Jack Bensinger. Hafeli and Bensinger are tabbed to fill the starting rotation, which also includes seniors David Mueller and Steve Dooley.

“Coach Kurich brought in some good players at the beginning of the spring,” Dooley said. “He brought in a couple more pitchers who will help us out quite a bit. It sucks to lose those guys, but they’re still around helping out at practice every day.”

Mueller started the season opener for Webster on Feb. 25 in Conway, Ark. In his first start, Mueller went seven innings and surrendered three runs. In his second start, Mueller hurled another seven innings, this time holding Grinnell College to five hits and no runs.

“Mueller needs to be dominant,” Kurich said. “He needs to get back to being the dominant No. 1. He’s as good as, if not better than, anyone in the Midwest, pitching-wise.”

One new player for Webster is freshman outfielder and pitcher Isaac Behme. Behme will be a versatile addition to the team, as Kurich said Behme is expected to help on the mound after the boom of pitching injuries. In his first collegiate start, Behme shut out Grinnell College with an eight-inning, one-hit performance on March 4.

“(Behme) will continue to pitch for us as well as play right field and hit in the middle of our order,” Kurich said.

Adding to the list of ailing Gorloks is junior outfielder Mike Rainbolt, who is out for a minimum of four to five weeks after dislocating his shoulder in the season’s second game. Kurich said the injured players were set to be key contributors throughout the year.

“There is no way you can replace the guys we lost,” Kurich said. “We were looking forward to seeing what they were going to do. Those (injuries) are tough to overcome, but these things happen — you move on. No one’s going to whine for us, so we’re going to go ahead and win without them.”

Junior center fielder Cody Stevenson returns to the Gorloks this season. Stevenson has amassed 10 steals through seven games this year. In 2011, he stole 47 bases in 45 games played. Senior first baseman Tom Henke will bring his .360 average back to the lineup.

“We’ve got a very good offense, no doubt,” Kurich said. “We’ll continue to train, be very aggressive, steal bases and take advantage where teams give it to us. We’re going to have to get good starting pitching, score some runs and have some guys in the bullpen step up to finish games off for us.”

The Gorloks have already played seven games this year. After losing its first three against Hendrix College, the team rallied and rattled off four straight victories to put its record at 4-3. Webster will travel to Florida during spring break to play five games in the Central Florida Invitational from March 10-16.

Webster University junior pitcher Cody Hafeli fires a pitch to a Millikin University batter during the Gorloks’ 13-1 win over the Big Blue on March 3 at GCS Ballpark. Hafeli threw six innings, struck out eight and allowed one run. PHOTO BY DAVID NASH.

However, the 2012 squad had several injuries prior to the start of its season. Sophomore pitcher Dylan Dean Smith and junior pitcher Jason Gray are out for the season with shoulder and elbow injuries, respectively.

Even if Webster clinches its sixth consecutive conference championship, the team and coach believes that will not be the last stop in the 2012 season.

“We’ve got the road to Appleton, (Wis.) — we keep saying that to ourselves,” Stevenson said. “We’re going to go to the College World Series. This year, we’re going to be that team that’s going to keep going.”

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