After a long winter, the MVNU baseball team will take the field the final weekend of February.
This year’s team will attempt to defend a Crossroads League Championship, the product of one of the most dominant seasons in the Cougars’ prestigious history. Last season, the Cougars went 44-12 (29-5 in the Crossroads League), posting a team batting averge of .331 and scoring a prolific 400 runs in their charge to a conference title.
The Cougars’ roster will look pretty familiar to fans as nearly all the pieces of last year’s team will return to Cougar Field this spring, including a bevy of all-conference players. Seniors Kenny McCambridge and Jake
Dickerson, as well as juniors Riley Swanson and Lucas Daugherty, will be in the lineup for MVNU.
Photo by Grant Taylor - Cougar slugger Jake Dickerson prepares for a pitch at Cougar Field.
McCambridge earned Crossroads honors at third base, batting .367 and also making several relief appearances on the mound for the Cougars in 2014.
Dickerson, widely regarded as one of the best power hitters in the Crossroads League, again will bring his dynamic bat to the plate this year. Dickerson hit nine home runs last season and is on track to make the MVNU all-time leaders list in that category.
Daugherty, who had a breakout season pitching for the Cougars last spring, fits to be the ace in this year’s rotation. Daugherty posted an 11-1 record in 2014 with just a 1.75 ERA.
Starting shortstop and 2014 Crossroads Player of the Year Riley Swanson also will be back for the Cougars.
Swanson hit 10 home runs last year to lead the Cougars and was named a 2015 preseason All-American by the NAIA.
This season, the team returns all but two of its starters, first baseman Seth Eller and starting pitcher Mike Kocheiser.
How the Cougars intend to replace Kocheiser on the mound is one question fans have wondered since last spring, as the all-conference pitcher appeared in 45 games over his career and recorded 209 strikeouts, including a career-high 86 last season.
“We’ve got three of our top four back,” said head coach Keith Veale about the Cougars’ rotation. “I feel like Kenny (McCambridge) could easily work into that equation. And Bryce (Arledge) had a really nice fall.”
McCambridge started nine games for the Cougars in 2013 and appeared in relief in 10 games last season.
Arledge pitched 39.1 innings last year in his freshman campaign with an ERA of 2.75.
The other gaping question for the Cougars is who will take over the starting role at first base.
As of now, four candidates appear to be in contention for the job: senior Cory Brown, sophomore Jeturi Brown, sophomore Jacob Chrysler and junior Efrain Montero, who was a catcher until an arm injury last season.
Cory Brown, who started 55 games for the Cougars last year and batted .293, has the most experience with the Cougars. He also has a .965 career fielding percentage.
Chrysler saw limited playing time in 2014 but made the most of his at bats, hitting for a .357 average.
Jeturi Brown, the sophomore transfer from Bowling Green University, started in only two games last season but had stats similar to Chrysler’s, also hitting .357 in as many plate appearances. He also managed a .500 on-base percentage.
Montero, whose season was shortened by the aforementioned injury, has shown the ability to hit for some power in the past but has not played much away from the plate for the Cougars.
Despite the questions at first base, the team will begin the season ranked 17th in the nation. But the players will tell you that the number doesn’t mean anything to them at this point in the season.
“We understand that our preseason rankings are determined on how the season ended last year,” said senior captain Clint Spencer. “Having said that, we still feel the need to prove ourselves.”
While Cougar fans, who enjoyed more than 40 wins last year, may find Spencer’s analysis harsh, Coach Keith Veale echoed his catcher’s sentiment.
“We’ve proved nothing,” he said. “We have to start from scratch.”