2013 Blackburn College Baseball Preview

The Blackburn College baseball team is looking to be one of the most improved teams in recent years. They are certainly looking to build off of their 12-25 record last season, while posting an 8-15 Saint Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference mark. Blackburn Coach Mike Neal definitely believes he has put together a team that can switch that win-loss record around. The Beavers consist of 13 newcomers and 13 returners. Nine of the 13 returners are sophomores and only one is a senior.

Even though they are still relatively young, the Beavers possess depth all over the diamond. “I feel confident putting a number of different guys out there in any given situation,” said Neal. Because of the depth, there is no definite lineup. Neal believes this gives his squad more advantages by having so many players that can produce. One of the many strengths of this Blackburn team is their speed. The speed gives them the opportunity to do many things in different situations such as stealing bases, bunting, and using the hit and run which leads to “an exciting style of play.” It also helps in the field by taking away hits by using their blazing speed.

The Blackburn pitching staff  will be led by Rock Valley College transfer Caleb Schupbach (JR, Rockford, Ill.), Vinnie Birk (SO, Swansea, Ill.) and Kaycee Jones (FR, Prescott, Ariz.). Schupbach will be the number one guy and get the bulk of the tough starts. “Caleb will be our go-to guy in the spotlight. He has the experience to handle it and we expect big things from him,” says Neal. Jones will likely be a conference starter as well. He possesses above average velocity with a good slider as well as great location of all of his pitches. “He needs a little bit of experience under his belt, but I see Kaycee being a tremendous part of our staff this year.” Rounding out the conference rotation will be Vinnie Birk. Birk is the only one of the three with SLIAC experience.  In his freshman year, Birk threw 29.2 innings on the mound and was tied for second on the team with 22 strikeouts. His 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings led the team. Neal on Birk: “Vinnie is a good athlete with an outstanding change-up.”

Juniors Cody Unser (Morrisonville, Ill.) and Cody Meyer (Mason City, Iowa) will also see valuable time on the hill. Unser is coming off Tommy John surgery in late 2011. He hopes to bounce back and return to form from his phenomenal finish to the 2011 season.  He appeared in 11 games and threw 55 1/3 innings striking out 30 hitters. Meyer will be a potential late inning guy for the Beavers with his fast paced style as well as his experience on the bump. He threw 37 innings in 8 games last year. “Meyer is very versatile and we could use him as a closer and/or in a spot starter role. It’s great to have a guy like that on the team,” said Neal.

Other returners that will get work on the mound are Dan Witkus (SR, Niles, Ill.), Jacob Baalman (SO, Hardin, Ill.) and Marcus Kelly (SO, Astoria, Ill.). Witkus, the only senior, has great command of his curve ball. “He is very effective with that curve ball of his because he knows when to throw and where to throw it.” Witkus was the team leader in strikeouts last season with 23 in 38 1/3 innings pitched. Baalman and Kelly both look to improve from their rookie campaigns. Combined they had 11 appearances at an inning piece. “Jacob and Marcus have both improved since last year and will be successful because of their ability to throw strikes.”

Newcomers that will log some innings on the mound are Josh Norsigian (FR, Collinsville, Ill.), Tyler Gosnell (FR, DeKalb,Ill.), Josh Voigtlander (JR, Rockford, Ill.), Tim Hillis (FR, Greenville, Mo.),  Matt Mokriakow (FR, Glen Carbon, Ill.) and Jared Jones (FR,  Mitchell, Ind.).

The starting catcher comes all the way from Caguas, Puerto Rico. Jose Osorio, a sophomore, transferred from McMurry College, a Division II school in Texas this semester. Osorio will provide middle of the order pop for the Beavers. Neal praises Osorio, “He is a significant upgrade offensively and defensively. Jose is just the complete package. His work ethic and determination will make him elite.”

Dan Witkus (Niles, Ill.) will serve as the team’s backup catcher. “Dan is definitely a solid number two guy to have,” said Neal. He has experience and plenty of games played during his time as a Beaver. He hit .187 in 29 games played with an on-base percentage of .374. Freshman Aaron Moody (Bonduel, Wisc.) will serve as the team’s emergency catcher.

The players on the dirt will be led by Franklin Bush (JR, Auburn, Ala.). Bush will return after sitting out last year due to a knee injury. He is one of the team’s leaders and will hit in the two spot in the lineup. “I’m glad to have Franklin back this year. It’s just like getting a free player, and that free player is one of the top shortstops in the conference.” As a sophomore in 2011, Bush started 33 games and hit .299 with 13 RBI while also swiping 15 bases.

The battle for first base is a dead heat between Jon Lowry (SO, Peoria Heights, Ill.) and Cody Meyer (JR, Mason City, Iowa). They both will see plenty of playing time and will likely rotate starts. Lowry hit .254 with 11 RBI in 22 games.  Lowry and Meyer were both tied for second in doubles last spring with seven. Meyer popped the only team’s long ball last year while hitting at a .224 clip and .302 OBP. Tim Hillis (FR, Greenville, Mo.) will provide depth at the position.

The remaining two spots on the infield will go to the hot hand among Cody Flowers (JR, Rantoul, Ill.), Vinnie Birk (SO, Swansea, Ill.,) and Aaron Moody (FR, Bonduel, Wisc.). Coach Neal is very enthused with his options at these two spots because of the depth they provide. All three of the players have plus speed and an above average glove. When in the lineup, Flowers will play third base and Moody second base while Birk will bounce between the two depending on who is playing. Flowers batted .283 with 10 runs scored and an OBP of .379 in 31 games. Birk hit .311 in 29 games and led the team in walks with 20 which pushed his OBP to .442. Moody will provide gap power at the second base position. His bat could also land him a spot in the lineup as a designated hitter as well.

Ben Beckwith (SO, Potosi, Mo.) will provide depth all around the infield and “is one of the smartest players on the team. His versatility will be very important to this year’s team,” says Neal. Beckwith hit .230 last season with 9 RBI. His 8 sacrifice bunts put him on the NCAA leaderboard in his freshman year. Jared Jones (FR, Mitchell, Ind.) is a lefty bat that will provide depth at the third base position along with Zach Heilig (SO, Mulberry Grove, Ill.). Drew Williams (SO, Batchtown, Ill.) and Colin Gowin (FR, Hermitage, Mo.) are very speedy guys that could be used as pinch runners as well as providing depth at second base.

First team all-conference player Donny Fuhrhop (JR, St. Jacob, Ill.) will again head the outfield and man center field. Neal always has positive things to say about his three-hole hitter. “Donny is the best overall player in the conference if not the entire central region. He’s that good.” Fuhrhop has separated himself by his outstanding worth ethic as well as being very explosive. Fuhrhop is the very definition of a five-tool player. He is one of the fastest players in the conference, has a great arm, plays superb defense, hits for average, and hits for power. Fuhrhop hit a team-high .343 in all 37 games last spring. His 19 RBI and 24 runs scored also led the team. His 6 triples broke Blackburn’s single-season record. Fuhrhop was a perfect 15-15 on stolen base attempts while also having a perfect fielding percentage in the outfield.

Left field will belong to Rock Valley transfer Josh Voigtlander (JR, Rockford, Ill.). Voigtlander had a very impressive fall and will leadoff this spring. “He’s just a solid ballplayer and all he does is hit line drives…everywhere.”

The other side of the outfield is up for grabs. Candidates to play are Cody Unser (JR, Morrisonville, Ill.), Matt Mokriakow (FR, Glen Carbon, Ill.), and Jacob Conder (SO, Carterville, Ill.). Unser brings some left handed pop and could also be used as a designated hitter. Mokriakow impressed Neal this fall and early spring. “Matt is very fundamentally sound at every aspect of the game.” Conder is one of the best defenders on the team. His plus speed gives him great range in the outfield. He had his struggles last year by hitting .197 in 28 games, but he has vastly improved and gotten stronger.

Luis Velez (SO, Addison, Ill.) is a right handed bat that could see some time in the outfield as well as a pinch hitting role. Tyler Gosnell  (FR, DeKalb, Ill.) had an amazing fall and will definitely provide depth. “Goose just needs some experience, but he has the potential to be a great asset to our team this year as well as in years to come.”

In the SLIAC, Webster is the team to beat. The Gorloks made it to the Division III World Series last season and enter this season ranked #10 in the country. Spalding will also be the other top team in the conference. This year is their first season eligible to participate in the conference tournament at the end of the year. Coach Neal believes his team has narrowed the gap between those two teams this year. The SLIAC is much improved as a whole with every series being a tough one.

The Beavers have already cancelled their games scheduled for this coming weekend due to the weather. They will open the season in Jacksonville, Ill. next Wednesday, March 6 against Millikin University before heading on their annual Spring Break trip on March 9th. Blackburn will travel down south and play games in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi before coming back home and opening conference play on the 23rd of March at home against Spalding.