With a roster full of returning players looking for new playing time, and new players in general, Eastern Mennonite University's baseball team faces some unknowns in the upcoming season.
The 2018 Diamond Royals consist of 24 underclassmen, including 16 first years. After graduating twelve impact players from last year's squad that finished with a record of 19-20, Head Coach Ben Spotts has secured another large recruiting class in his sixth season at EMU.
With so many new faces to the program, this season represents a bridge from the past to a new future for Royals Baseball. The Royals of old were known for their prowess at the plate; this year's team should be known more for its defense and speed. The team has generally had solid arms on the hill but now looks to build continuity on the mound and find finesse from the plate as the season progresses.
Pitching has always been the hardest part of the program for Spotts to rebuild, but aside from adding one new pitcher, the returning men at the mound have all experienced a college season before. According to Spotts, this means that, "they know the ups and downs and understand what it takes to win and execute pitches in one of the best conferences in Division III."
Damon Frazier (Waynesboro, Va./Wilson Memorial), John Judy (Shanks, W.V./Hampshire), Bailey Hall (Daleville, Va./James River), and Austin Carroll (Chester, Va./Matoaca) are expected to provide most of the starts, while Tristan Childress (Waynesboro, Va./Waynesboro), Ryan Brewer (Martinsville, Va./Franklin County), Michael Wilhite (Hershey, Pa./Lower Dauphin), and Tyler Campbell (Luray, Va./Luray) will pitch significant innings in relief.
Frazier made an immediate impact after coming to EMU as a graduate transfer from D-II Concord University. He was voted All-State Second Team to the utility spot. The right-hander was 11th in the ODAC with 6.65 strikeouts per nine innings. Splitting time at first base, Frazier also had a .352 batting average with 30 RBIs and 20 runs, adding a .985 fielding percentage.
This season, another early emphasis is on player development and growth, in an effort to make up for the disparity in experience.
"We have several young players who could see playing time depending on how quickly they develop and if they take advantage of opportunities as they are presented."
Assistant coach Adam Posey added, "The goal is for guys to be better players in April than they were in January."
Some of the top newcomers include Jaylon Lee (Newport News, Va./Denbigh), Brett Lindsay (Gloucester, Va./Gloucester), Ray Tricarico (Culpeper, Va./Eastern View), Billy Quinn (Ashburn, Va./Stone Bridge), Corey Willis (Fredricksburg, Va./Massaponax), and Jonathan Nagle (Chesapeake, Va./Portsmouth Christian).
The main losses from last year surround Joe Hall, a two-time ODAC Batting Champion with a .400 career average. He played the outfield and infield, and batted early in the order. Kyle Matthews, another All-ODAC player, leaves shoes to be filled as a first baseman and left fielder.
In graduating such a large class, many of the spots on the field remain unproven. In other words, players will look to get their chance rotating in and out of the lineup.
"Zach Roberts (Stuarts Draft, Va. / Riverheads), Adam Marston (Woodstock, Va./Miller School), and Daniel Scott (Moneta, Va./Staunton River) are guys that will be on the field more times than not because of the veteran presence they provide," said Posey. "Filling the other spots will be based on the situation at hand."
Now Spotts will lean on his veteran players and use their previous experiences to reach even higher in 2018.
"We have a group of guys that have worked together now for a few years and we will lean on them for significant contributions," he said.
Overall, 2017 was a year with a veteran roster and high expectations. Although the goal of making the conference tournament did not come to fruition last spring, the Royals hope to step out on the field this season and continue to develop the program and work towards the tournament.
"While we have a young team this year, I think that the mindset of mental toughness, playing hard, and expecting to win has carried over from the returners to our young players," Spotts said.