Coming off of a 2016 campaign that featured a 21-19 (9-12 CCIW) record and a sixth place finish in conference play, the EC Baseball team enters this spring with a veteran roster and high hopes.
As manager Joel Southern heads into his 11th season leading the Bluejays, he will lean heavily upon a foundation of players that includes All-CCIW upperclassmen SP/1B Ben Havel, 3B Reagan McReynolds, C/SP Austin MacMillan and SS Brandon Kressner as well as 2nd year corner OF Matt Wilson.
In addition to the All-Conference returnees, the Bluejays boast a deep group that mixes youth and experience to provide upside as the team grinds through its conference schedule.
Behind the plate, Southern plans on using a trio of receivers. The manager says that he has a hard working group that is led by junior Austin MacMillan and also consists of junior James Wick and senior Travis Pickard, who caught Southern’s eye with his selective approach at the plate in the preseason.
MacMillan is a strong offensive backstop, evidenced by his team leading with a .496 On-Base Percentage. The junior will likely catch on the weekends, as he will toe the rubber as a starting pitcher during the week.
Assistant Coach Jonathan Porter has worked diligently with both Wick and Pickard in order to prepare them to step in and spell MacMillan when needed. Wick receives high praise for his defensive abilities, with Southern noting that he is the “best defensive catcher on the team”.
Up the middle the Bluejays turn to senior Brandon Kressner, a three-year starter at shortstop. Southern affectionately refers to the 5’8” Kressner as a “grinder” who knows how to play the position and has made himself into the best shortstop to come through the program in the time that Southern has been at the helm.
Kressner draws praise in the field; however, he also turns heads at the plate. Serving as the Bluejays primary number two hitter, the shortstop produced a .309/.404/.444 line in 2016, along with a team leading four home runs and a 25 to 10 walk to strikeout ratio.
The keystone will likely be manned by a combination of players throughout the season, and sophomore Trey Compton appears to have the inside edge to playing time to begin the year.
At the hot corner, the Bluejays will return to the 2016 first team All-CCIW selection, junior Reagan McReynolds. The athletic third baseman serves as the team’s leadoff hitter, setting the tone for the offense. McReynolds was on-base at a .430 clip a season ago, stealing 27 bases in 33 attempts.
Southern describes his leadoff man as a fearless base stealer, recalling a moment from the Augustana series last season in which McReynolds made his way to first base and then had his way with the opposition.
“Augustana threw over there three or four times in a row, almost picked him off, and may have picked him off once. He ran anyway, first pitch and beat it easily,” said Southern.
“We won that game 15 to 9. I think it really helped set the tone for that whole series,” added the Bluejays skipper.
On the other side of the diamond, the Bluejays plan to utilize the bat of senior Ben Havel at first base as often as they can afford to. The 6’7” Havel is a two-way player who is ranked by Baseball America as the number three Division III MLB draft prospect in the country as a pitcher.
While his future may be on the mound, Havel has plenty to offer at the plate in the near term. The right-handed hitter slashed .382/.425/.559 during his junior season and enters 2017 only 53 hits shy of the Bluejays all-time hit record.
Other contributors on the infield will include Austin MacMillan, Evan Berliner, Jacob McMillan and a number of potential freshman.
Looking towards the outfield, the Bluejays have a pair of starters in senior A.J. Compton and sophomore Matt Wilson.
Compton is likely to man centerfield in his final year with the Bluejays. He brings a wide array of skills to the table as he is aggressive on the bases (15 stolen bases in 2016), defends well, maintains a high on-base percentage and leads the outfield with intensity.
Rightfielder Matt Wilson batted .320/.380/.385 with a pair of home runs and six stolen bases during his second team All-Conference campaign as a freshman.
Christian Ott and Compton figure to split time in left field throughout the season, along with a number of other players.
Ben Havel will serve as the staff ace for the Bluejays. Havel sits 87-92 with the fastball, brings a sharp curveball as his secondary pitch and also features a splitter as an off-speed offering. Havel struck out 51 batters in 61 innings pitched last season.
After Havel, the Bluejays will turn to MacMillan to provide stability and handle an increased workload as a pitcher. The right-hander worked 35.2 innings a year ago, striking out 33 and only walking eight.
Southern mentioned that MacMillan made great progress on the mound in 2016, culminating in a complete game shutout at Benedictine late in the season.
Beyond the veteran duo at the front of the staff, the Bluejays will need to comb through the roster in order to find the right combination of pitchers that can make up the back end of the rotation.
Junior right-hander Kiko Mari has a live arm and started a conference game in 2016. However, he needs to consistently find the strike zone. Southern was pleased with the progress he made throughout the fall early on this spring, and Mari is as good a candidate as any to earn a role as a starter this spring.
Other candidates include: junior right-hander Daryl Rivera, junior right-hander Nick Drago, sophomore left-hander Christian Grabowski and freshman right-hander Jordan Scrimpsher.
Southern is excited about what he considers to be a talented freshman class.
Jordan Scrimpsher has shown potential on the mound, as well as with the bat. Left-handed hitting Carson Thomas also features an exciting swing. Chad Tucker and Calvin Bjorgum could both see time at first base. Trevor Horvath is a middle infielder with a line drive swing who Southern believes could replace Kressner at shortstop in 2018 and Collin Winston is a promising left-handed hitting catcher.
Southern has set his team’s expectations high, for what he believes to be good reason.
“We beat everybody in the league last year at least once. We were 9-5 in games one and two of a series last year and we were 0-7 in game three. That’s not a knock on the guy who started game three because he had some good outings … the point is that we were very competitive,” said Southern.
The Bluejays will head to Auburndale, Florida during spring break as they compete in the Russmatt Tournament. They will then head to North Central to begin CCIW play on March 28.
The Bluejays home schedule begins on April 2 as North Park visits Butterfield Park for a 12 p.m. game.