TERRE HAUTE —
With Sean Manaea in the national spotlight, it’s easy to forget the small matter of Indiana State being the defending Missouri Valley Conference champion.
ISU tied for third in the 2013 MVC preseason poll – Missouri State is the favorite – but there is confidence ISU can defend its crown even though several players who played an important role in ISU’s MVC championship team have moved on.
“We’ve got a lot of new guys that are hard-working and really competitive. It’s going to take us a few weeks to find our identity. It won’t be like last year, but we’re confident and excited,” said ISU shortstop Tyler Wampler, referring to ISU’s 13-game winning streak in March that lifted the Sycamores to a 26-6 mark on April 7, 2012.
Catcher Jeremy Lucas – the 2012 MVC Player of the Year – was drafted by Cleveland. First baseman Jon Hedges ran out of eligibility (and became a father). Left fielder Kyle Burnam called it a career and is working for the university. Outfielder Lucas Hileman went on to become an all-MVFC punter for ISU’s football team.
Pitcher Dakota Bacus was drafted by Oakland. Pitchers Ryan Torgerson and Kyle Rupe left the program.
Lucas’ shoes are the biggest to fill and catcher is ISU’s least experienced position. Heller is excited about transfer Mike Fitzgerald, who will also play in the outfield. Taylor Shaw, a transfer from Southern Utah, figures into the mix as he tries to recover from a knee injury. Taylor Steen is a freshman who might play.
“It’s obviously going to be a question mark with the lack of experience. Our pitching staff is pretty talented and throws hard with good breaking stuff. They’d be tough to catch for an experienced guy. Getting these guys ready has been a lot of work, but they’ve stepped up to it,” ISU coach Rick Heller said.
Hedges’ role has to be filled at first base, but Heller is very high on freshman Jeff Zahn, who played at Castle, Robby Ort’s alma mater.
Ort, who has played right field and first base during his time at ISU, returns to his roots at second base. He was an infielder in high school.
“It’s been tough moving back. I played in high school, but it’s a lot different at the college level. Being away from it for three years, it took a while. Every day is getting better. It’s coming back to me,” said Ort, who was named to the Preseason All-MVC team as an outfielder.
Wampler, one of the best defensive shortstops in the MVC, returns for his third season. Koby Kraemer is also back, but due to an elbow injury, might not play regularly in the infield as he did in 2012.
Jordan Pearson, who can play several infield positions, is in the mix at third base, vacated by Ryan Walterhouse. So is Derek Hannahs, a Robinson, Ill., native and son of former ISU star Mitch Hannahs. He sat out 2012 after starting his career at Ohio State.
With Ort moving to the infield, two spots have to be filled in the outfield. Landon Curry will play center field full-time after splitting time there with Hileman during Curry’s freshman campaign.
Casey McCurdy returns and can play either left or right field. Jacob Hayes, a Terre Haute South star, who like Hannahs, returned to the Wabash Valley from Ohio State, is expected to play regularly in right with Fitzgerald. Owen Conway will also be an option.
ISU suffered a blow when Connor McClain, a candidate to play left field, broke his hand. He had surgery Monday
With Bacus, Torgerson and Rupe gone, Heller has work to do to build a rotation. Manaea will start on Friday’s. Heller expects Daniel Peterson to take Manaea’s former Saturday role.
“Since he’s been here, he’s dominated everybody. He throws strikes and he throws at the knees. The infielders love fielding behind him,” Manaea said.
The Sunday starter’s role will be developed during the nonconference season. Devin Moore, a former reliever, could earn the job. Heller said Moore has been impressive in preseason throwing. Jeff Degaro and Tyler Fehringer are also competing for the job. One of those guys could emerge as ISU’s mid-week starter, a role Rupe was very effective in last season.
Heller believes the bullpen will be deep. Former Terre Haute South star Josh Dove is expected to be the closer after transferring from Lincoln Trail College. Heller has been impressed with veteran Kurt Kudrecki, who slots into a set-up role. Tyler Pazik, Josh Negele and Tyler Browning are veterans who give the Sycamores options.
“I feel like it’s deeper than it was last year. I feel Josh Dove can give us a true closer. He’s been great for us in the fall and spring,” Heller said.
One of the biggest changes to the program has nothing to do with the roster at all. The outfield wall at Bob Warn Field is being rebuilt and will now have a modern, padded outfield fence.
There’s new dimensions as fences have been moved in. Warn Field will be 332 feet down each line, 372 feet to left and right field, 395 feet in the power alleys and 393 feet to center.
Heller knows defending ISU’s league title won’t be easy. Missouri State, who finished second to ISU in 2012, is the favorite and has their own pitching phenom – Nick Petree.
“I think we all know it’s not going to be easy. There’s teams with a lot more back than we do. Missouri State has almost everyone back. Wichita State wasn’t hurt that much in the draft. The team I think that has the most back is Illinois State,” Heller said. “I think what we’ve seen in scrimmages gives me a lot of hope we can beat anybody. It’s up to them to do the job, but I think they will.”