The Keene State College Baseball team is on a mission—a mission to show everyone that last year’s season was a “fluke.”
The Owls finished the 2013 campaign with an 18-23 record. The season also concluded with a seven-game losing streak. Senior pitcher and tri-captain Shawn Egan said, “Last year was a fluke. I think that once the first pitch of game one starts, we can wipe the slate clean and prove to people that we’re here to win.”
Even with the below .500 overall record the Owls finished third in the Little East Conference with a 7-7 record, right at the .500 mark in conference play. Head coach Ken Howe called last season “a disappointing year for us.” Howe said the main reason why the Owls had an upsetting year was because the Owls did not win close games like in previous years.
Howe attributes the losses in close games to a young roster and said inexperience was a major factor. “A lot of players were thrust in the forefront last year,” Howe said. Howe said he is hopeful that a year of experience for the now-sophomores will help. “We are a year older and hopefully a year wiser,” Howe said.
According to Howe, the goal this year is to compete at a high level. “Expectations are always to compete for the Little East tournament title and be one of the top teams in the conference,” Howe said.
This season the Owls are projected to have one of the best infields defensively in the conference. Howe views the club’s fielding as the team’s greatest strength. “Our biggest strength is our defense. We are going to be a very strong defensive club this year,” Howe said.
Tri-captain catcher Andrew Gummow siad he also thinks the defense is the team’s toughness. “We tied our fielding percentage record last year,” Gummow said. The Owls’ last season tied the record set back 2007 with a .964 fielding percentage.
Egan said he believes in the Owls defense. “I think we’ll have one of the best defenses—if not the best in the conference—possibly the country, and that is led by [shortstop] Billy Hartmann, [second baseman] Nick Vita, [third baseman] Tanner Chase, not just to single guys out,” Egan said.
Another strength for the Owls is their great arms on the mound. “On the mound we are going to be pretty talented,” Howe said. Currently, Howe said he has not decided on each pitcher’s roles yet, but said he expects the underclassmen to contribute.
According to junior catcher Matt Boulay, the Owls’ pitching staff is going to have to be good for a successful season in the conference.
“Our weekend pitchers are going to have to pitch phenomenally every weekend,” Boulay said.
The Owls offense is going to be led by preseason All-American and tri- captain second baseman, Nick Vita. Vita hit .430 last season with two home runs while driving in 34 runs. Vita’s outstanding play last season paid off as he played for the Keene Swamp Bats of the New England Collegiate Baseball League—but his summer was cut short when he broke his hand. Vita said he had a blast with the Swamp Bats.
“Playing with a lot of division one kids, you kind of see how you stack up at that level of competition. I felt like I could definitely compete,” Vita said.
Vita said he would not call it pressure to perform at a high level. “It kind of honestly drives me a little more. If they are going to hold me at that standard, I kind of want to compete at that level and keep getting better and be an All-American, not just a preseason All-American. Trying to get better is my goal,” Vita said.
The Owls will also benefit from last year’s junior varsity team. “It really helped the guys who got an opportunity to play JV last year. They got a lot of at bats and a lot of innings pitched that they wouldn’t have gotten with us [at the varsity level],” Howe said.
According to Howe, some players from last year’s JV team will have an expanded role with the big club. “A lot of those guys are expected to be performers on this year’s team,” Howe said.
Howe said the JV team will be continued this season. However, there will be less games as there are less players on this year’s roster and there are health questions.
“Right now we are [going to have a JV team] but I think we are going to have less games this year because our numbers are down with injuries and things like that,” Howe said.
The Owls are hoping for a strong start to this year’s season to get the bad taste out their mouth for last year’s less than stellar start and finish.
Hartmann said last year’s Florida trip was a challenge. “We need to get off on the right foot this year on the right track. Last year was a rough Florida trip for sure,” Hartmann said. The Owls went 4-6 during last year’s Florida trip.
One thing that Hartmann thinks will help is the Owl’s playing in sync. “I think we have a lot better chemistry than we had at this point last year. Everyone is working a lot harder, which goes along with chemistry,” Hartmann said.
The Owls are projected to finished fifth in the Little Eastern Conference Preseason Coaches Poll. One point separates the Owls and fourth place University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. The Owls are also only five points behind the University of Massachusetts Boston for third place.
“That’s fine with me. It doesn’t affect me at all. At this point they don’t have any faith in us. I think that is going to drive us. We ended up in third place last year and we really didn’t play our best baseball. That really shows we have a lot to give. I think this year we’re going to prove a lot of people wrong,” Vita said.
After missing all of last season with a hand injury, Boulay is using the poll as motivation as well. “It bothers me.… Coming back I want to put this team where it should be,” Boulay said.
The Owls are hopeful that the weather will clear up, as the opening day is in just about a week. Howe said he was concerned about weather. “I’m starting to look at the weather in Old Westbury [N.Y.] and Purchase [N.Y.],” Howe said.
If the Owls are unable to play those games, Howe said it would be hard to make the games up at a later date. “I don’t know what will happen at this point. It is going to be tough to get those four games in the season. When all of those teams are in-conference play,” Howe said.
According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the forecast in Purchase, N.Y., for the week of March 1 through March 8 is projected to have snow showers and cold temperatures. Also, the Almanac predicts snow showers and cold weather for the week of March 1 through March 8. As for the weather, the Owls are going to have to take whatever Mother Nature throws at them.
“Being in New England it is kind of expected. We have to deal with it,” Vita said.
Brian Clemmenson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org