The Youngstown State baseball program is looking for memorable seasons from two highly-regarded juniors, production from its many newcomers and a shot in the arm from first-year head coach Steve Gillispie in 2013.
Gillispie, a long-time successful assistant in his first head-coaching position, spent the previous 11 seasons building Jacksonville State to a powerhouse in the Ohio Valley Conference. He's assembled a coaching staff with 70 years of experience coaching, evaluating and playing baseball, and Gillispie has been outspoken about YSU's high potential for the short and long term.
"Our staff feels so strongly that this is a place that can be a factor on a national level," Gillispie said. "We have as good as or better facilities than most teams in Division I, a coaching staff with over 70 years of experience at all levels who know how to recruit, develop and motivate players to do well. This may largely be the same group of kids, but it's a different mindset. There's an excitement that I don't think was here last year."
While there are 24 players returning from last year's team, there are also 10 newcomers and several players back from injuries in 2013. The Penguins were limited to 11 wins total during last year, but, for the second consecutive year they were one win away from reaching the conference tournament championship round. The pitching staff will look largely similar, but the defense and line-up could have a much different combination of players from newcomers and players switching positions.
"From a talent standpoint, I think it's way better than what you would equate to a team that won 11 games," Gillispie said. "I believe there is some ability on our pitching staff, and we have some guys who can do some things offensively and defensively. We'll see how we compete. When the uniforms change color and the umpire says play ball, that's a whole other world than intersquads and practice. What we've done so far and where we're headed, I think we'll be able to put a good product on the field and be in games."
Gillispie has two former Division I head coaches in Kevin Smallcomb and Craig Antush, a former OVC recruiting coordinator who was a bullpen catcher at the Triple-A level in Jason Neal, and a former Major League starting pitcher in Jason Stanford on his staff. Their credentials show that they can recruit, develop and motivate players to do well, but Gillispie said the desire to improve has to come from within the club.
"For us to be better, our mindset has to be different when we get to the ballpark," Gillispie said. "It needs to be 'someone is going to have to play well today to beat us.' It can't be just to show up and think 'maybe we can win, maybe we can't.' We need to have a belief in our abilities so we can stop slumps or a poor outing before they get out of hand. If there are bumps in the road, we need to turn the page."
"I think we've come a long way with that, but I think it's still a challenge. We can't let what happened yesterday affect us in our game today."
Juniors Drew Dosch and Nic Manuppelli have received preseason hype from both respected national writers and Horizon League coaches, and special seasons from them will go a long way in helping YSU to more wins.
Dosch was tabbed as the conference's Preseason Player of the Year and the top professional prospect by Baseball America, and he was unanimously chosen by the league's coaches as the hitter they'd least want to face as well as one of the best pure hitters and biggest power threats in a poll by CollegeBaseballInsider.com. Manuppelli was ranked as the third-best pro prospect by Baseball America, and he was picked as the top closer in the CBI poll.
"Some scouts who saw Drew this fall said he profiles as a second to third-rounder, and Nic could be a top-10 rounder," Gillispie said. "Hopefully they play to their potential. If they do, that's probably where they'll end up. There aren't too many programs in the country that are going to have two top-10 round draft picks."
Dosch was a First-Team All-Horizon League pick last season and an all-star in the Cape Cod League last summer, and he'll anchor the Penguins line-up and play third base again. He batted .353 with a team-high eight home runs in what was a breakout season in 2012. He will anchor the line-up and third base again, and he's slated to be joined on the left side of the infield again by shortstop Phil Lipari. Lipari batted .250 and posted a respectable .365 on-base percentage last year. Junior Neil Schroth will return from a redshirt season to play second base, a position he played as a true freshman before moving to center field as a sophomore. He's hit at least .290 in each of his two seasons. Marcus Heath, who hit .244 with three home runs in 2012, will also move in from the outfield to play first base.
Sophomore Kevin Hix is another Penguin making the move from the outfield to the infield, and he has worked out primarily at second base this spring. Senior Padraic Williams and sophomore Jack Graham both played multiple positions last season and could be used as utility infielders along with newcomer Nick DiNello. Junior Kris Moules and freshman Jonas Wellan provide power potential in the line-up and could both see time at first base. Moules can also play outfield, and Wellan can catch.
JUCO transfer Josh White was brought on to limit the run game behind the plate, and he will allow fellow backstop Craig Goubeaux to play with more rest. White hit .297 with 36 runs scored and 33 RBIs for Lackawanna College last year, and Goubeaux batted .219 with two home runs as YSU's starter for 33 of the final 34 games. Three local players in Jake Kucek (Canfield), Ryan Trimbur (Girard) and Dan Popio (Boardman) will also compete for time behind the plate.
"The infield really solidified from fall workouts to the spring," Gillispie said. "We had some guys playing mostly outfield who moved to the infield, and getting them acclimated to our bunt and situational defenses was a little sketchy in the fall. The individual work really brought those guys along, and things have been really crisp."
Three junior college transfers and a freshman have added a lot of depth to the outfield, which has allowed Gillispie to move Heath, Hix and Schroth to the infield. Lackawanna College transfer Mike Accardi will likely be the primary centerfielder and a staple at the top of the line-up. He posted a .365 batting average, a .479 on-base percentage, 11 doubles, 49 runs scored and 15 steals last year. Devin Higgins is a transfer from Shasta College who batted .301 with 19 steals last year. Moules, YSU's third addition from Lackawanna College, hit .294 with 42 RBIs and 22 stolen bases last year. Logan Brown is a freshman from Leechburg, Pa., who could see time in the outfield or on the mound.
Those four newcomers join returning left-handed hitters Jason Shirley and David Saluga. Shirley hit .303 with seven doubles and a team-high nine stolen bases last year, and he'll see time in the outfield and at designated hitter. Saluga hit .300 over 40 at bats last year and came on strong late to start six of the final nine games of the season.
"We want to defend the outfield, be good behind the plate where we limit the running game," Gillispie said. "We'll pitch to contact, go right at hitters to try and limit pitch counts and get quick outs. I think we'll be able to do that because our outfield will be able to run down most fly balls."
There are 16 players on the roster listed as pitchers, and Gillispie said as many as seven will compete for spots in the conference rotation. Of the 16 pitchers, only three are newcomers.
Senior left-hander Blake Aquadro has the most starting experience on the team with 15 of his 34 career starts coming last year. Aquadro won three of his final four decisions in 2012 and earned Horizon League All-Tournament Team honors for beating Wright State in the conference tournament. The rest of the starting staff will likely be right-handers. Russ Harless, Patrick O'Brien and Pat Shedlock all started at least 10 games apiece last season, and Ryan Krokos, Robert Switka and Lance Horner will all compete for larger roles.
Harless had three wins and a save last season while posting just 12 walks in 80.1 innings. His 5.15 ERA was the best among YSU's returning starters. O'Brien also pounded the zone with 15 walks in 46.2 innings, and he finished strong to post an ERA of 3.08 in his final six outings. Shedlock will have another crack at the rotation after starting 11 games last year, but he showed he can be solid out of the bullpen in 2012 with a 4.26 ERA in four relief appearances. All but four of Krokos' 25 appearances last season came out of the bullpen, and he showed signs at times of being a major contributor for his redshirt sophomore season. Switka started 15 games in 2011, but he was limited to five appearances last year because of injury. Horner is a freshman from Rittman, Ohio, who was 7-0 with a 1.35 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 57 innings last year.
Manuppelli will serve as the closer again in 2013 after being dominant at times as a sophomore in 2012. Manuppelli finished with a 5.79 ERA, but 18 of the 24 earned runs he allowed came in a 10-inning stretch in early April. Aside from those five appearances, he had a 1.98 ERA in 27.1 innings. Additionally, his 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings led the team. He'll be joined on the back end of the bullpen by left-handers Alex Frey and Jared Wight and righties Erik Okleson and Josh North.
Frey pitched in two games last year as he continued his comeback from Tommy John surgery in 2011, and Wight is a freshman who was 9-2 with a 1.33 ERA as a high school senior near Los Angeles last year. Okleson has pitched in 37 games over the last two seasons, and, like Manuppelli, he had a rough stretch at the beginning of last April that inflated his ERA to 7.32. North pitched in 13 games out of the bullpen last year as a freshman. Right-handers Brad Smith and Joey Gajda will join Williams and Brown in providing help in the middle innings.
"Playing four games on the weekend early will allow us to pitch a lot of guys," Gillispie said. "We've come across six or seven guys who we think are starter types, and we may have guys who start during conference weekends pitching middle innings early just to build up pitch counts. Our depth has been a plus. We've shown the ability to pitch with a fastball, show something off-speed and do a good job throwing strikes and getting ahead."
Youngstown State begins the 2013 campaign with a four-game series at Samford on Feb. 15, and it is scheduled to play its first 23 games on the road. The Penguins' home opener is set for March 22, and their Horizon League opener will be March 15. YSU will host the Horizon League Tournament at Eastwood Field May 22-25.