When the Youngstown State baseball team takes the field at East Carolina for the season opener on Friday, it will look very different from the 2010 team that was loaded with experience and power.
The 2011 version of Penguins baseball, the fourth under head coach Rich Pasquale, will have just nine upperclassmen - a major contrast from 12 seniors alone last season - seven new starters and two new pitchers in the weekend rotation. Included in that group of 12 seniors were the Horizon League Player of the Year, a former conference pitcher of the year and four players who signed professional contracts.
The goals remain the same – play hard-nosed, fundamental baseball, improve every day and win the Horizon League title. Only two pitchers on the roster have thrown in at least 60 innings, and only three hitters have stepped to the plate more than 150 times at the Division I level. Pasquale will depend on those five players, as well as a talented group of hungry student-athletes who have waited for their shot, to accomplish those goals.
The collegiate game itself will also be different with a time limit between pitches and, more importantly, new bats that will react more similar to wooden bats than the metal ones that have contributed to a nationwide rise in homers and runs. That may actually help the Penguins, who scored more than five runs in 20 of their 22 wins last year. This year's group is built to advance runners with productive at bats, play solid defense and have a strong back-end of the bullpen.
Senior Phil Klein will be the Penguins' clear-cut No. 1 starter after providing a solid one-two punch with Aaron Swenson the past two seasons. Klein was a first-team All-Horizon League selection his sophomore season after posting five wins and a league-leading 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings. A 6-foot-7, he is a legitimate candidate to continue YSU's recent success of developing players for the professional level.
"Phil has a lot of confidence coming into his senior year," Pasquale said. "He needed to speed a few things up in his delivery, and he's been working on that. He had a really good fall, and he knows he's No. 1"
Sophomore Kevin McCulloh set a freshman record by appearing in 28 games last season, but he'll move to the rotation as the No. 2 starter. He did make two starts during the regular season but served primarily in a set-up role. He was effective in that capacity as his 4.96 ERA was second-lowest on the team and his 52.2 innings ranked as the fourth-most.
Sophomore Robert Switka opens the season as the final weekend starter after an offseason in which he showed the most consistency of the remaining contenders. Switka was a standout at Ursuline High in Youngstown as a prep, but he hasn't pitched in a game since 2008.
There are three other pitchers on the squad that have started in the past. Sophomore Blake Aquadro made 12 starts last season, highlighted by a strong stretch in April in which he allowed one earned run in 17 innings. Senior Cody Dearth has been in the weekend rotation in the past and has started 17 games during his career. Sophomore Bill Turosky started four midweek games last year but pitched 19 times out of the bullpen.
Freshman Drew Dosch enters the season as the closer, and fellow freshman right-handers Nic Manuppelli and Ryan Krokos will also be counted on to throw quality innings late to relieve pressure on the rotation.
"Phil and Cody have done a good job of showing our younger guys what it takes to be a Division I college pitcher with their work habits," Pasquale said. "We're inexperienced, but all of those young guys have good stuff that will help them get outs."
Junior first baseman Jeremy Banks returns as one of the top sluggers on the team, and he'll be a mainstay in the middle of the order. Banks hit .313 with five home runs and 12 doubles last season, and he closed out the year by hitting .353 over the final two months. Senior Greg Dissinger is also a first baseman, but most of his time has come at designated hitter.
At the other corner, Dosch will be depended on to play every day as a freshman. He earned All-Ohio honors as both a position player and a pitcher during his prep career. At Canal Winchester High, he batted .524 with 121 RBIs over four years.
Williams will be the primary second baseman after appearing in 22 games as a freshman. He started nine times at second, including every game of the Horizon League Tournament. Williams can also shift to third when Dosch comes in to close out games on the mound.
David Leon returns from a redshirt season to be the regular shortstop. The junior has started 101 games in his career, playing at short as a freshman and at second his sophomore year. As a sophomore he was a second-team all-league pick after batting .282.
Junior Jonathan Crist will assume the role as primary catcher, having played behind the plate 49 times in his first two seasons. He's batted .274 for his career with 10 extra-base hits. Redshirt freshman Craig Goubeaux will spell Crist.
Redshirt senior Joe Iacobucci has a chance to finish with one of the best statistical careers in school history with another solid season. The left-fielder is coming off a career year in which he hit .369 with 10 home runs, 52 RBIs, 46 runs and 18 doubles.
Center field will be manned by former second baseman Neil Schroth. Schroth was a Horizon League All-Newcomer Team pick last season as a freshman as he hit .294 in 82 plate appearances. Armani Johnson started 28 games in the outfield last year, and he'll be the opening day starter in right field. He was hitting .307 in late April before tailing off toward the end of the season.
Two freshmen will also play a factor in the outfield. David Saluga is a left-handed hitter who batted .533 with four home runs as a senior at Hickory High in Hermitage, Pa. Right-handed hitter Chris Mitko has good speed and hit .627 as a senior at Northland High near Columbus.