News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 12, 2011

Seniors Chris Stemple and Michael Kovacs lead Engineers into HCAC championship with sights set on returning to NCAA Tournament

Craig Pearson
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Chris Stemple and Michael Kovacs have become part of the winningest class in Rose-Hulman baseball history, but there’s still work to do for these senior outfielders.

Stemple and Kovacs have both surpassed 200 career hits for the Engineers, becoming the third and fourth players in program history to achieve the feat.

Stemple and Kovacs aren’t ready to sit around patting one another on the back. The Engineers have their sights set on a third straight trip to the Division III national tournament.

Third-seed Rose-Hulman plays today in the first game of the double-elimination Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament, taking on No.-2 seed Franklin.

“We were in 5th place [going into the final weekend], knowing we had to sweep all three games [against Hanover] to secure a spot in conference tournament and we won all three games,” Stemple said. “We’re pretty confident right now in what we can do. The starting pitching was better and played great defense.”

Rose-Hulman (26-14) swept Hanover, outscoring them 24-1 to secure the berth in the postseason.

Rose won the HCAC title the last two seasons, with last year’s senior class leading the way.

“Second baseman B.J. Zobrist was splitting time so we lost our whole infield, lost 5 pitchres, lost an outfielder,” Coach Jeff Jenkins said. “This team has really become great leaders, and they learned a lot from that previous class.”

Kovacs said this year’s team has been driven to succeed, and great team chemistry is a big reason for the success.

“Out of the four teams I’ve been on here, this is probably the one that’s had the best chemistry,” Kovacs asaid. “Everyone’s pulling on the same end of the rope. We still have a bunch of great guys, talented athletes,  ready to step up and take their place.”

The Enginners have a strong 4-3 record against the other three tournament teams, including a 2-1 mark against top-seeded Manchester.

Stemple, the Rose leadoff man, and Kovac, the 3-hole batter who’s right at .400, hope to continue to spark the Engineers’ offense.

“He sets the table. We do much better if he starts the game well,” Jenkins said.

Stemple started the season 3 for 29, but he’s been able to work his average back up to .344. Stemple hit .444 in 44 starts in 2010, but had to fight through struggles early this season.

“I’ve had a lot of support from my teammates, they believed in me,” Stemple said. “I’ve been consistent the rest of the year so it’s been good.

“I never thought playing here that I’d have this degree of success.”

The adversity in Kovacs’ season has come more recently. Kovacs got his 200th hit in his first at-bat of a loss to Franklin, then took a pitch to his wrist in his next at-bat.

“I fractured the ulna,” Kovacs said. “They [medical personnel] tried to put a cast on it. I said ‘no, you don’t understand, it’s my senior year. So we’ve just been taping it up.”

Kovacs said he’s been hitting fine battling through the pain.

An opening win is key in the Engineers’ title hopes.

“That’s why it’s really important to win early. The team that wins the first two has a big edge,” Kovacs said. “It’s really important for our pitchers to step up and play well early.”

Toughness and leadership are things that have become the norm around Rose-Hulman baseball, with Kovacs and Stemple a big part of carrying on those staples.

“We preach to do things with pride and class, and those kids are evident of that fact,” Jenkins said. “They do the offseason work. They really do a nice job with leading the team, and making sure things get done without us [coaches] having to preach and preach.”