EIU Baseball Squad Opens Season This Weekend

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Published on February 14 2013 12:03 pm
Last Updated on February 14 2013 12:03 pm
Written by Millie Lange

CHARLESTON, Ill. – The Panther baseball team opens the 2013 schedule at the Jackson State tournament on Feb. 15-17 in Jackson, Miss. EIU begins tournament play on Friday at 3 p.m. against Texas Southern.

The Panther baseball team returns five position starters and a total of seven pitchers from a 2012 squad that finished the year with 29-29 overall record. EIU finished the regular-season strong, winning 11 of its final 15 contests to earn the No. 4 seed in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Panthers won their first three games of the OVC Tournament before falling to Austin Peay in the championship series.

Despite losing junior shortstop Ryan Dineen to the MLB draft and All-OVC First Team selection Mike Hoekstra (RHP) to gradation, the Panthers return plenty of young talent for the upcoming campaign. Sophomore duo Brant Valach (IF) and Caleb Howell (OF) highlight the returning players as Valach was named OVC Rookie of the Year in addition to being named to the 2012 Louisville Slugger Freshmen All-American Team. Howell was also named to the All-OVC Newcomer Team.

BARTON TO MISS ENTIRE SEASON DUE TO INJURY
Senior Troy Barton (RHP) will miss the entire 2013 season with an elbow injury. Barton was projected to be the Panthers No. 1 starter after posting a 9-5 record a year ago with a 3.20 ERA. The Libertyville, Ill., native threw 52 strikeouts in 78.2 innings of action while holding opposing hitters to a .239 batting average.

Barton has a 14-14 career record with a 3.91 ERA in three seasons. He has recorded 128 strikeouts in 165.2 innings of work.

PREVIEWING THE PITCHERS
Despite the loss of Troy Barton, the Panthers return pitchers who have experience in the starter role. Junior Christian Slazinik looks to anchor the staff after posting a 6-6 record last season with a 4.50 ERA. The southpaw was second on the team in strikeouts (68) in 80.0 innings. Sophomore Matt Borens is projected to be a weekend starter after making three midweek starts in 2012 with a 5.70 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 23.2 innings.

Two newcomers are expected to add depth to the rotation in CJ Martin and Joe Greenfield. Martin, a freshman from St. Louis, was ranked as the fourth best player in the state of Missouri and the 316th overall prospect in the country by Perfect Game Baseball in 2012.

Greenfield played with the Panthers during his freshman campaign and rejoins the squad after playing at South Suburban C.C. a year ago. Greenfield was selected in the 22nd round (No. 691) by the Boston Red Sox in the summer of 2012. The right-handed pitcher posted a team-high 95 strikeouts with South Suburban C.C., helping the team to a 32-22 overall record. Greenfield was initially tabbed to be the Panthers closer, but the injury to Barton has moved Greenfield back into the starting rotation.

Other returning pitchers include seniors George Kalousek and Scott Houdek, junior Luke Bushur and sophomore Andrew Grahn. Newcomers include junior college pitchers Ben Kennedy, Garrison Stenger and Jaden Widdersheim in addition to freshman Jake Johansmeier.

PREVIEWING THE INFIELD
Three starters from the infield return to lineup in Jacob Reese (C), Nathan Sopena (2B) and Brant Valach (3B).

Defensively, Reese caught 22 base runners stealing last year in 42 attempts while also posting a .271 batting average with 26 runs and 35 RBI. Reese was the lone Panther selected to the 2013 All-OVC Preseason Team.

Valach hit .314 last year with 28 RBI, 17 runs and 10 doubles as the freshman was tabbed the OVC Rookie of the Year. Sopena played in 49 games with 44 starts, posting a .207 batting average, 25 runs and 14 RBI. The senior also added eight stolen bases.

Junior Tyler Schweigert is expected to start at shortstop after playing at shortstop, second base and the in outfield in his previous two seasons with EIU. The Round Lake, Ill., native has played in 55 career games with the Panthers including 14 starts.

Junior transfer Treysen Vavra is projected to fill the hole at first base, previously played by 2012 All-OVC Second Team selection T.J. McManus who graduated. Vavra led Madison College to a 45-13 record last year with a .407 batting average (70-for-172). He also had 48 RBI, 10 doubles, five triples and three home runs.

PREVIEWING THE OUTFIELD
The Panthers return two of last year’s starters in senior Nick Priessman and sophomore Caleb Howell. Junior Cameron Berra is projected to become an everyday starter in right field after being the team’s primary utility player the last two seasons. The St. Louis native played in 28 games with 19 starts, posting a .244 batting average with 23 RBI and 13 runs.

Priessman played and started in 46 games last season before missing the final eight games of the year with a broken finger. The Cincinnati, Ohio native had career-highs in 2012 with a .289 batting average, 26 runs, 20 RBI and nine stolen bases. He has played in 109 career games with 78 starts.

Howell is projected to move from right field to left field this spring. The sophomore outfielder was named to the All-OVC Newcomer Team last year after posting a .316 batting average with a team-high 37 runs. He also added 65 hits and 19 RBI.

PANTHER NOTES
• The Panthers also lost redshirt-senior Ben Thoma who was named to the 2012 ABCA/Rawlings NCAA Mideast Region Second Team as selected by the American Baseball Coaches Association. Thoma ended his career as EIU's all-time career home runs leader and was 2012 All-OVC First Team selection.

• Demetre Taylor is expected to fill Thoma’s spot in the lineup as the Panthers designated hitter. The redshirt-freshman initially came to EIU to play football before redshirting last season and joining the baseball team.

• The 2012 season saw the Panther pitching staff post the best earned run average in the OVC for the third consecutive season. EIU has posted the best ERA in the OVC in four of the last five seasons with the Panthers finishing the 2009 campaign with the second-best ERA, respectively.

• EIU finished the season fourth in the OVC in stolen bases with 51. The Panthers return two of their top three stolen base leaders in Nick Priessman (9) and Nathan Sopena (8).

SCHMITZ ENTERS HIS 19th SEASON AT EIU
Head coach Jim Schmitz enters his 19th season with the Panther baseball team, recording a 476-485 overall record. The three-time Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year has won four regular-season titles – most recently in 2009 – and has taken the Panthers to the NCAA Tournament on two occasions, both in 1999 and 2008.

Schmitz has seen the on-field accomplishments of his players come to fruition as 65 players have earned all-conference accolades including 36 players who have earned first-team distinction. Three players have also earned player of the year honors in Matt Marzec (1998), Pete Pirman (2002) and Jordan Kreke (2009) during his tenure. John Larson also captured pitcher of the year honors in 1999 while Ben Duke (2001) and Brant Valach (2012) have earned newcomer of the year recognition.

Under the tutelage of Schmitz, 18 players have been taken in Major League Baseball’s First-Year Players Draft since taking the helm of the program in 1995. Seven players have been drafted in the last four seasons, most recently Ryan Dineen and Joe Greenfield who were taken in the 2012 draft. When Tyler Kehrer went 48th overall in the 2009 MLB Draft, he became the highest Panther picked since 1988.

PANTHERS PICKED TO FINISH FIFTH IN OVC
The Panther baseball team was tabbed to finish fifth in the Ohio Valley Conference's Preseason Poll as selected by conference head coaches and sports information directors on Feb. 8.

Austin Peay was picked to win the conference, earning 14 first-place votes. The Governors have won the last two regular-season and conference tournament titles. OVC newcomer Belmont was selected to finish second (eight first-place votes) after capturing the Atlantic Sun regular-season and tournament titles a year ago.

Jacksonville State was tabbed to finish third followed by Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Illinois. Tennessee Tech was picked to finish sixth while SIUE was selected seventh. Southeast Missouri, Morehead State, Murray State and UT Martin rounded out the bottom of the predicted order of finish.

JASON ANDERSON NAMED PITCHING COACH
Jason Anderson was named assistant baseball coach at Eastern Illinois in the fall of 2012 following 11 seasons of professional baseball, including three seasons in Major League Baseball. Anderson serves as the team's pitching coach.

The Danville, Ill., native spent time within the New York Mets, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies organizations from 2000-10. He also played for the Somerset Patriots in 2011.

Anderson played collegiately at Illinois from 1998-2000 where he named an ABCA First-Team All-American in 2000 while also being tabbed Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. In addition to his professional baseball experience, Anderson was an assistant baseball coach at Illinois (2011) and Danville C.C. (2010). He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois.

UPCOMING SCHEDULE
The Panthers will travel to the Southern Miss Tournament on Feb. 22-24 following their trip to the Jackson State Tournament. EIU will face Southern Miss, Alcorn State and Missouri State next weekend.