With baseball season quickly upon us, four former Hiland Hawks are looking to make major contributions on the diamond this spring at the collegiate level. Todd Ropp (Jr, 3B/1B), Jordan Yoder (Jr, LHP), Eric Mullet (Fr, RHP), Clyde Yoder (So, RHP) and the Malone University baseball team opened the 2017 campaign on February 18th at California University (PA) as a first-year member of the Great Midwest Athletic Conference. Although the G-MAC portion of the schedule won’t begin until late March, the Pioneers will look, early on, to build upon the success they’ve established over the last two seasons in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
“We’re excited to move into the new league,” expressed head coach Tom Crank. “It’s going to be very competitive much like the GLIAC. We’re going to do all we can to try to be at the top.”
The Pioneers are coming off a 27-24 season that included an 18-12 mark in conference and their second straight postseason berth. Malone secured the #3 seed in the GLIAC Championships and defeated top-seeded Grand Valley State on day two of the double-elimination tournament before being eliminated by eventual Midwest Regional qualifier Hillsdale on day three. Graduation claimed 12 seniors from last year’s squad including All-GLIAC performers Jon Crank, Matt Davis, and Richie Mast along with starting pitcher Tyler Whitlatch who led the team in strikeouts last spring.
The 2017 version of the Malone roster features just five seniors and 23 first and second-year players. Among the seniors are All-GLIAC outfielders Keanan Locke and Brenden Wells, first baseman Ryan Sarbaugh, and hard-throwing relievers Jordan Knight and Gunnar Smeyres. With such a young club, coach Crank will lean on their experience as his squad transitions into a new era of Malone baseball.
“We have great senior leadership,” noted Crank. “We’re looking for a lot from those guys to help lead our younger players. We are inexperienced and unproven in some spots, but we’re a team full of talented and smart baseball players who know the game.”
The Pioneer pitching staff features a bevy of quality arms including 2016 GLIAC Freshman Pitcher of the Year Braun Miller who led the squad with a 3.90 ERA and was nearly unhittable at times last spring. He will be joined in the front end of the rotation by junior lefty Roscoe Blackburn (4-4, 4.19 ERA) and sophomore righty Clyde Yoder (3-2, 4.29 ERA, 9.0 K/9 IP). Juniors Joshua Hurford (3-2, 4.63 ERA, 3 SV) and Shawn Mills both have great stuff and both have starting pitching experience. Highly-touted freshmen Eric Mullet and Christian Specht are also competing for starts on the mound.
A 12-man contingent of pitchers makes up the Pioneer bullpen. Knight and Smeyres along with lefties Jordan Yoder and Cody Ballay will compete for late inning roles while another gifted freshman, Kyle Kovach, is expected to contribute in a similar role early in the season. A long list of middle relievers includes sophomore Chandler Stahl, the only remaining pitcher with varsity experience, juniors Trevor Beerman, Austin Szemacs, and Ed Williams, sophomore lefty Anthony Stillwagon , and freshmen Nathan Hill and Tommy Walker.
Collectively, the Pioneers posted a 5.77 ERA a season ago that included a 4.28 mark in conference. Two seasons ago Malone led the GLIAC with a 3.43 ERA and a 2.26 mark in conference. Despite the relatively high ERA numbers last season, coach Crank and his staff are more concerned about the number of “W”s.
“We expect to improve on last year’s numbers as a whole, but we are more focused on outpitching our opponents and winning a championship.”
Much of that onus on winning will fall on a Pioneer lineup that hit .311 as a team last year but graduated its 2-3-4 hitters. Returning outfielders Brenden Wells (.385, 5 HR, 41 RBI) and Keanan Locke (.344, 7 HR, 44 RBI, 10 SB) will be counted on to produce at the top of the order while freshman speedster Nate Cobb, the 2016 Stark County Player of the Year, is expected to man the vacated third outfield spot. Cobb brings the Pioneers a prolific base-stealing threat that was lacking from the roster last season as Malone swiped just 25 bags. Competing for time in the outfield will be junior Andy Fletcher and freshmen Michael Mathieu, Beau Workman, and Connor Ferguson.
First baseman Ryan Sarbaugh is expected to anchor the Pioneers’ young infield. Despite his senior status, Sarbaugh has just 153 career plate appearances to his name. He hit .307 in 18 starts last season. Sophomore Joe Crank (.391 OBP in 33 starts) is the only other returner, but he will make the transition from second to short. Freshman Zach Mottice will man second base while junior Todd Ropp will hold down the hot corner.
Sophomore Austin White will provide depth at the corner infield positions as well as at DH while junior Dyllan West will serve as the primary backup in the middle infield. Also in the mix for at bats are first baseman Rece Sabo, third baseman Adam Studer, and shortstop Tyrus Jones.
Sophomore Matt Noel will handle primary catching duties after starting 19 games and hitting .309 as a freshman. Sophomore transfer Tom Eslich and freshman Trey Davis will both compete for time behind the plate.
The Pioneers will have the next two weeks off before traveling to Tucson, Arizona for an 11-game spring break trip. They return to play their home-opener on March 15th against Tiffin. Malone will make its G-MAC debut against Cedarville on March 24th before hosting Kentucky Wesleyan in the conference home-opener the following weekend. The G-MAC Tournament is slated for May 10-13 at Prasco Park in Mason, Ohio.