Gene's Blog: Things looking up for UST on diamonds

St. Thomas Athletics has come to expect success each spring from its two diamond teams.

Over the last 23 seasons, Tommie Softball (38 wins a year) and Tommie Baseball (34 a year) have won more than 75 percent of their games. Few NCAA institutions at any level have produced that winning clip along with consistent conference and national success.

Again in 2017, despite obstacles, those St. Thomas programs didn't disappoint.

Despite leaning heavily on underclass players, UST Baseball coach Chris Olean and UST Softball coach John Tschida guided their teams to top-20 national finishes. Both came close to reaching their eight-team national finals.

Those two Tommie squads combined to post a 24-5 record on their home fields. Their 66 total victories included six in the NCAA playoffs.

Both won or shared their respective MIAC championships – Baseball for the 14th time in 15 years, and Softball for the 12th time in 14 seasons.

Both played tough enough schedules to receive at-large berths into the NCAA tournament.

Baseball had the nation's fourth toughest schedule by one metric. St. Thomas played 21 games against teams that reached the NCAA playoffs, including 10 against teams that placed first, second or third in the regionals.

Softball went 9-0 this season against Wisconsin conference teams, including a 4-0 mark against NCAA qualifiers Whitewater and La Crosse. 

In the postseason, both St. Thomas squads advanced to the final two or three of their NCAA regionals, and both beat a top-10 ranked teams on their home field.

And for Olean and Tschida, all signs point to even better years ahead in 2018. Neither team had an All-America honoree in 2017, although several talented players will return next season.

 

Slow Start

Tommie Baseball (29-18) overcame a slow start to win 24 of its last 34 games.

Five starters graduated from the 2016 team. The coach tinkered with lineups all spring looking to get his best performers onto the field. He started 20 different players in the field or at designated hitter, and had eight different players come off the bench and deliver pinch hits. In several late-season games, Olean's lineup included no seniors.

After hitting just .245 and averaging four runs in its first 13 games, UST batted .296 and averaged nearly six runs a contest over its final 34. The Tommies were not shutout in any of their 47 games.

In Florida, the Toms were tied 6-6 late before losing to Washington and Lee, the eventual NCAA runner-up. They split a doubleheader with top-10 Division III team Wheaton (Mass.), and lost extra-inning or one-run games to regional runners-up Southern Maine and Babson.

In the final stretch of the season, they halted a five-game losing streak to St. John's with a 3-0 mark against the Johnnies, and later ended a six-game losing streak to UW-Whitewater, the nation's No. 2-ranked team, with a 7-2 postseason victory. 

Pitching carried the Tommies most of the year. The staff allowed only 12 home runs in 47 games, and placed third out of 379 Division III programs in both strikeouts-per-nine-innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio. UST tossed five shutouts and went 21-4 in games when it allowed three or less runs.

Their top four starters -- sophomore Henry DeCaster; juniors Ryan Zimmerman and Drew Molin; and senior Mitch Larson – combined to go 24-8 with a 2.68 ERA with 289 strikeouts and just 56 walks.

Freshman closer Shaun Falbo went 3-0 with two saves and didn't allow a run in 10 appearances (14.1 innings). Opposing hitters managed a .045 average against him (2-for-44).

DeCaster made nine straight starts in whch he recorded two earned runs or less, striking out at least six in each start, earning him MIAC Pitcher of the Year honors.

Zimmerman, who had two postseason complete games, improved his career mark to 10-5 with one save and 2.58 ERA with 119 strikeouts in 116.1 innings.

In his last five starts, Molin was 3-0 with an 1.07 ERA and 41 strikeouts and just four walks in 33.2 innings.

The pitchers were aided by an outfield that combined for 11 defensive assists (throw outs on the bases).

 

Growing Pains

UST struggled at times to score runs, and was up and down in the field. If those areas can improve, look for the Tommies to become a top-25 Division III team in 2018.

Look for 2018 rising seniors Jake Smith, Zach Gottfredsen, Hunter Hart and Logan Kohorst, and rising junior Sam Cobbs to lead the way at the plate.

Cobbs hit a team-best .372 in his first season as a starter. He finished in the top two in the conference in RBI (38), total bases (97), hits (61), doubles (17) and extra-base hits (24).

Smith hit safely in his final 15 games of the season to raise his final batting clip to .328. Smith led all MIAC players in triples (six) and total bases (99); was third in runs; and was fourth in hits (58) and home runs (seven). In 123 career games, Smith has reached base 209 times via hit, walk or HBP: 150 hits, 43 walks and 16 hit by pitch.

Gottfredsen has 130 hits and 26 walks in 122 career games, including 38 multi-hit games.

Hart has 70 hits, 41 walks and 61 RBI in 79 career games.

Over his last 22 games, Kohorst had 19 hits and six walks while hitting .340.

Rising junior Joe Burnley (.307, 23 hits) and rising sophomores Sam Schneider (.297, 43 hits) and Josh Thorp (.306, 34 hits) all had breakout college seasons.

"With so many young players, just getting to the regional and getting that postseason experience was huge," Olean said. "Knocking off (UW-) Whitewater was a big deal. The bulk of our lineup is back, we're adding a recruiting class with a few more guys who look like they can help. We're trending in the right direction."

Zimmerman and DeCaster will pitch in this summer's Northwoods League. Molin would have returned to the Northwoods to pitch but instead landed a top summer internship in his academic major. Olean said Cobbs and Smith both have shots at a Northwoods roster spot, too, as injuries and departures kick in through the summer.

Olean will be only Division III coach in 2018 to return three All-Region starting pitchers.

 

Defense Rules for Softball

St. Thomas (37-11) had its youngest team yet of the 17-season Tschida era.

Its late-season lineup featured two seniors, six sophomores and a freshman. Its top two pitchers were junior transfer Sammy Hogan, and senior Jessica Eppenberger, who came into the season with only two career starts.

St. Thomas graduated nine seniors in 2016 from a 43-8 team that reached the eight-team nationals for the second time in three years.

The Tommie lineup also took a huge hit for 2017 when All-Region pitcher Kierstin Anderson-Glass was forced to seek a medical hardship for a medical issue.

The 2016 conference Pitcher of the Year and Rookie of the Year, Anderson-Glass led all freshmen pitchers at all 974 NCAA softball programs in Divisions I, II and III last year in both strikeouts (233) and wins (30). She was 30-5 with two saves and a 1.06 ERA with 233 strikeouts and just 17 walks. She also hit .374 with 52 hits and 22 RBI in 2016.

Teamwork powered this Tommie squad. No UST players received any of the 22 conference Player or Pitcher of the Week awards over nine weeks this season, and balance was on display. Tschida had 12 different players come off the bench and deliver a pinch hit.

"Having no conference players of the week or major conference awards, that's a great testament to the teamwork this team showed," Tschida said. "We led the league in both hitting and defense. The latter feat was harder because we didn't get a lot of strikeouts and had to make more plays in the field."

St. Thomas went 34-1 in games when it allowed three or less runs, thanks in large part to sharp defensive play. Melissa Barry had just one error in 188 chances at second base, and overall the Toms finished in the top 10 nationally out of 381 teams.

That glovework also helped UST record 17 shutouts and turn 23 double plays.

Expected to lead in 2018 are rising juniors Barry, Chase Shortly, Dana Connelly, Jenna Beeso, Jenna Bromen and Rachel Suter, plus rising sophomores Anderson-Glass and Elise Barnes.

Shortly led the team in RBI (40), hits (54) and doubles (20) while batting .362.

Barry hit .374 with 54 hits with 35 runs, 16 steals and 12 RBI, and had just one error in 188 defensive chances. She only struck out twice to ranks among the national leaders, and had a team-best 17 multi-hit games. In 19 career postseason games, Barry had 21 hits and 11 runs.

Connelly batted .321 with 42 hits, 24 runs, 18 RBI and nine walks. In 19 career postseason games, Connelly has 15 hits, 11 RBI and four doubles

Barnes built a 13-game hit streak at one point. She had a hit, walk or RBI in each of her last 25 games and had 11 hits, eight runs and eight RBI in eight postseason games. She batted .350 with 43 hits and 15 steals, and at third base had only four errors in 150 chances.

UST graduated three regulars in All-America DP Brenna Walek; CF Megan Bush; and Eppenberger.

Walek, a 2014 All-America, slugged 35 career home runs to rank in the top five in conference history. In 178 career games she also hit .322 with 123 RBI, 141 hits, 69 runs, 38 doubles and 71 walks. 

Bush led the team with a .410 average and .612 slug percentage, with 21 extra-base hits and 40 RBI. Over the last three seasons, Bush had 112 hits while batting .349. She had 12 hits in eight postseason games.

Eppenberger, who went 20-6 with a 2.79 ERA, won eight in a row before losing 1-0 and 8-4 to St. Catherine in the Super Regional round.

"We really felt good about winning the league championship, with so many more good teams to get through in the MIAC this season," Tschida said. "There's never been this many good teams and good pitchers in our conference."

The 2018 season will bring new infield turf and upgrades for Baseball at Koch Diamond. For Softball, Tschida is expected to reach 700 Tommie wins and 900 career wins in the first half of the season.

But those fun facts could take a backseat to what happens on the field and in the standings, where things look promising for both programs.

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Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working in his 23rd season at St. Thomas and 29th overall in the MIAC. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) and Division III sports.

If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at ejmcgivern@stthomas.edu