HUNTINGTON, Ind. - On the heels of three Mid-Central Conference titles in the past four seasons, including two in a row, this spring’s edition of the Huntington baseball team is more than equipped to keep the Foresters’ recent run of success going.
Huntington loses just one key player from last year’s squad that advanced to the NAIA National Tournament for the second straight season and won the program’s first game in the newly-fangled playoff format.
“We certainly return a lot of players from last year’s team,” said Huntington skipper Mike Frame, “but every year is a new year. Last year’s team made as many strides during the season as any team we have had. We lost our first 10 games, but to our kids credit, they kept working and played very well in the conference tournament.”
The Foresters bring back all but one pitcher from last season’s staff, including seniors Mitch Bowers and Ethan Tribolet, who led Huntington to four wins in last year’s MCC Tournament.
Through three seasons, Bowers, the team’s ace, is having one of the best careers in Huntington history. A starter from day one, Bowers has a career mark of 26-13 with a 3.47 ERA and 163 strikeouts to just 57 walks. He went 9-4 a year ago with a miniscule 1.79 ERA en route to his second straight All-MCC honor.
Tribolet went 5-4 with a 4.91 ERA last season.
“We anticipate our pitching depth and experience to be a big strength of our team,” said Frame, who is in his 28th season. “We have some flexibility in several of our kids and the chance to create some tough matchups in relief. We feel like we have two starters in Mitch and Ethan that can compete with anyone on our schedule. They both have pitched against very good teams at the national level and have had success.”
Junior Xyan Adkisson (3-5, 4.81 ERA), junior Cody Walters and sophomore Derek McKinney, sophomore John Ripke (1-1, 5.79 ERA) and junior Tyler Palmer (2-0, 4.91 ERA) give Huntington a plethora of starters which Frame can use at his discretion.
Closer Brian Kirschbaum (four saves, 2.70 ERA) anchors the back of the bullpen. Kirschbaum, a junior, has eight saves and 38 relief appearances through his first two years. Sophomore Wes Carroll (2-1, 4.98 ERA), senior Ty Mills and senior lefty Anthony Roth will see action in middle relief.
“We feel very good about what we see on the mound and are looking forward to seeing how our kids perform in the spring,” Frame said.
Offensively, the Foresters are deep, as well, and return three quick, top-of-the-order hitters in senior Eric Schultz, junior centerfielder Adam Christner and sophomore Blake Ayers.
Shultz, a right fielder, led Huntington with a .349 average, .446 on-base percentage and five triples. He slugged four home runs, 10 doubles, scored 39 runs, walked 23 times, drove in 25 runs and was tabbed as an All-MCC performer.
For his career, Schultz is hitting .394 with 194 hits, just 36 shy of Heath Leather’s career hits record, which has stood since 2001. Schultz has recorded 64 or more hits in two of his three seasons.
Christner hit .331 with a team-best 16 doubles and scored 41 runs. Ayers hit .310 and made only one error at second base.
The three were terrors on the base paths. Schultz was 25 for 29 in stolen-base attempts, Christner was 27 for 30 and Ayers went 9 for 13.
As a team, the Foresters ran wild a year ago. Huntington utilized its speed to produce runs and was a sparkling 95 for 120 in stolen-bases attempts, something it looks to continue this season.
“We changed our offensive philosophy last year,” Frame said, “to try to be more aggressive on the base paths, and I think it helped us. We will work to continue with that. There are certainly young men here that can be productive offensively, but our approach may need to be a little different as it relates to scoring runs. We probably have more speed in our everyday lineup than we have had for a while, and we will need to try and take advantage of it.”
Junior shortstop Jamon Hammel (.291, 1 HR, 33 RBIs), sophomore third baseman Marc Bowers (.190, 16 RBIs), junior catcher Josh Lanphier (.295), sophomore backstop Dustin Rutledge (.280), junior leftfielder Jordan Klopfenstein (.283, 23 runs, 11 steals) and sophomore first baseman Drew Adams (.256, 14 RBIs) round out Huntington’s lineup.
Position-wise, the Foresters have realigned some things, moving Schultz, previously a shortstop, to rightfield and shifting Hammel from right to short. This puts Huntington’s three quickest players — Schultz, Christner and Klopfenstein — in the outfield.
“Moving Eric to the right gives us a tremendously athletic outfield,” said Frame. “We think we have the ability to go get the ball.”
As has been the case in recent years, Taylor is the preseason MCC favorite. The Trojans open the year ranked 25th and return a solid nucleus from last year’s team that went 21-1 in league play. But the Trojans collapsed in the MCC Tournament, and Huntington walked away with the league’s postseason berth.
“Once again, we have high expectations and, as always, our schedule in very tough,” Frame said. “Every year, our goal is to win the conference tournament championship. The conference is our avenue back to postseason play. Our coaching staff has done a great job developing our kids throughout the fall and winter. They do an outstanding job of teaching the game and motivating our young men to play at a high level.”
Huntington begins its 2012 campaign with doubleheaders at Campbellsville (Ky.) on Friday and Saturday. The Foresters’ first home games are on March 20.
Provided by Austan Kas, The Herald Press