Written by Student Assistant Christian Bond
TACOMA, Wash. – The Pacific Lutheran University baseball team aims to replicate last season's success after winning the Northwest Conference Tournament title and advancing to the NCAA Division III West Region Championship game in 2016.
The Lutes (29-19, 15-9 NWC in 2016) will have to do it without the services of Cory Nelson, Drew Oord, and Garrett Brown who were sensational for the Lutes last season. Nelson and Oord shared the first-ever O.T. Harstad MVP award last season while Brown was a Second Team All-American and a First Team All-West Region honoree.
"We had a very good senior class last year," said Head Coach Nolan Soete. "The good news is that we have another good senior class this year. We have 11 seniors. I like this team and I like the guys we have on this team right now. It's a bunch of guys with a lot of big game experience."
Even with the turnover, PLU was picked to finish second in the Northwest Conference in the preseason coaches' poll. The Lutes infield will be anchored up the middle by seniors Ben Welch and Landon Packard. Welch plays shortstop, and is a career .302 hitter, boasting a .393 on base percentage. Packard plays second base, hitting .308 in three seasons as a Lute, with a .380 on-base percentage and was an Honorable Mention All-NWC pick last year.
Returning Second Team All-West Region selection Cole Johnson will see time at first base, as well as on the mound. Johnson hit .304, with seven doubles and three home runs. He drove in 38 runs last season. An Honorable Mention All-NWC selection, Johnson started 15 games on the mound for the Lutes, accruing a 5-4 record in 87.0 innings pitched.
Tanner Williams missed last season with an injury and is looking for time at third base. In 2015, Williams batted .333 and had an on base percentage of .468 in 48 at bats. Transfer Anthony Gosline will compete for time at third base also.
"We return a lot of guys from last year," Welch said. "We got Williams and Gosline playing third this year and both those guys are experienced. I think we'll do real well. We were one of the top teams in the country in fielding percentage last year, it starts with infield and we expect to be back there this year."
Matt Vick, Frank Airey and Jacob Bockelie will all be vying for playing time behind the plate. Vick is strong defensively, collecting 64 putouts and nine assists with a .973 fielding percentage in 2016. Airey is a left handed hitting catcher, who holds a .394 career on base percentage. Bockelie missed last season with an injury.
"Vick and Airey got a good amount of experience from last year, and Bockelie is coming back from injury," Nolan Soete said. "Riley Johnson is a freshman who will be battling as well. Vick and Airey will play a lot this year. I'm excited to see how Bockelie bounces back and I'm excited for his bat."
The Lutes are experienced throughout the outfield as well. Brett Johnson, Connor Cantu, Kory VanderStaay, Casey Dawes, and Jacob Clements saw time last season. Johnson batted .328 in 180 at bats, hitting 16 doubles, two triples and two home runs in 2016. Cantu led the team with four triples last season, and had a .983 fielding percentage with 114 putouts, and three assists.
"Our outfield is awesome," Cantu said. "We've played together for so many years, were able to know where each other is at all the time. We have a very fast outfield and we can cover a lot of ground out there. Having that chemistry between each other, a lot of good communication we're able to make plays without worrying about anyone running into us."
The PLU pitching rotation will have a few new faces in 2017. Along with Johnson, Jacob Gleichman and first year Chad Gideon will round out the starting rotation. Gleichman pitched 24.1 innings in 10 appearances. He struck out 3.33 batters per nine innings. Gideon stands at 6'4" and weighs 230 pounds.
"I'm really excited to see what the pitching staff has," Soete said. "They don't have near the amount of experience as the staff from last year but really excited to see them go out and compete."
"I think this group can be good offensively and defensively," Soete said. "The first few weeks of the season will be a good indicator of what we need to get better at throughout the season. I will tell you I'm excited about this team, I love this team. They work hard all the time. The biggest excitement I have is from how hard they work. They're really a bunch of students of the game. I'm excited to see how we progress throughout the season."
PLU opens the lid on the season down in Claremont, California with a three game set against Pomona-Pitzer Colleges. The Lutes and Sagehens battle on Thursdaywith a single game at 2 p.m. before closing the series on Saturday with a twinbill beginning at 11 a.m.
About the Sagehens: Pomona-Pitzer (3-1) hosts the Lutes after winning three of four last weekend against a pair of Northwest Conference schools. The Sagehens battled the University of Puget Sound in a three game set, seizing the opening two contests 6-0 and 7-4 before falling 9-6 in the finale to the Loggers. Pomona-Pitzer rebounded on Sunday, crushing Willamette University 17-0 in a game the Sagehens cranked out 22 hits.
Cade Hulse has been red-hot at the plate, owning a .737 batting average and a .895 slugging percentage. David Gerics headlines the pitching staff, netting 12 strikeouts and allowing no earned runs in eight innings of work.