BY BROOKS HOLTON – SPORTS EDITOR
It’s tough to sugarcoat a 7-28 season.
In 2015, Centre Baseball felt the pain of playing in arguably the best Division III conference in the country, dropping back-to-back SAA Tournament games to be eliminated from postseason play. The competition will continue to challenge the Colonels in 2016, with conference foes Birmingham Southern and Rhodes named to D3Baseball.com’s Preseason Top 25, and Millsaps also making a case for a spot in the rankings. Don’t tell that to senior catcher Zach Montgomery and senior starting pitcher Rob Caudill, though. With depth on the mound and another year of experience at the plate for the Colonel offense, this could be a banner year for the team.
“For 2016 we want to completely turn around the program,” Montgomery said. “Our first expectation is to claim the school win record (23), something we feel is a very feasible goal.”
“From top to bottom, our lineup is going to be the best we have had in my Centre career,” Caudill said. “There is no reason we can’t set the record.”
To reach that goal, head coach Mike Pritchard is stressing the importance of the process.
“If we can get a little bit better each day, the results will take care of themselves,” Pritchard said. “It’s [SAA] as competitive as any conference in the country and will require a great effort every weekend.”
The Colonels have all the makings of a team that could give many schools trouble in conference series. All three weekend starters—Caudill, senior Stephen Shunk, and junior Trevor Brewer—are returning for another year on the bump against the SAA’s finest, and the core of the bullpen will be back for clutch late-inning scenarios as well.
Defense will also be a major key ingredient for a successful 2016 campaign, so count on the Colonel gloves providing a lot of support for the pitching staff.
“We aren’t a team that’s going to hit a bunch of homeruns or average 10 runs a game,” Caudill said. “We are a team that has to execute with timely hitting, play solid defense, and dominate on the mound. That is just the way we are built.”
“This is a smart team that will outwork those same teams and will not take anything for granted,” Montgomery said. “For this team to be successful we will have to be tough and relentless.”
A number of underclassmen could play a big role in providing that needed momentum early on in the season. Both Montgomery and Caudill cited first-years Brahm Whittinghill (IF), Drew Schacht (OF/P) and Wes Jorrette (OF) as three of many younger players who could contribute early in the starting lineup. Coach Pritchard echoed the sentiment.
“We have some talented young guys that are competing for playing time,” Pritchard said. “It wouldn’t be a surprise to see some of them earn significant playing time.”
At the heart and soul of the team, however, will be its senior class.
“The seniors are the first complete set of leaders I have seen in my time here, combing leadership through voice, example and heart,” Montgomery said. “I personally take responsibility for directing a very young team while on the field [as catcher]. After a lot of experience, I have a lot of confidence in directing this team to do not only what needs to be done but also push this team to play at another level, which will be essential to any conference win.”
After three seasons of experience preparing them for this final run, they feel they’re ready to take ownership of the leadership roles that will be demanded of them.
“Our senior class is great,” Caudill said. “You look at [Stephen] Shunk, Monty [Montgomery], Forest Goodwin, Charlie Grigsby, and myself, and we are just all so close. We all bring something different to the table from a leadership standpoint and it makes things run smoothly within the team. We want to be part of something special. But more importantly, we want to be remembered as guys that were respectful, hard working and all around good teammates.”
No more sugarcoating—it’s time to win.