2012 Iowa Conference champions
PELLA—After graduating a class that won 100 games over four years, the Central College baseball team and 11th-year head coach Adam Stevens are swinging for a return trip to the top of the Iowa Conference.
One year removed from its league championship season, Central finished with a 22-19 overall record and was fourth in the league standings. The Dutch lost nine games by two runs or less, seven of which were in conference play. But Central also won 12 games by two runs or less, which shows how important it is to win the close ones.
“Bottom line is we played a ton of close games last year and our margin for error was pretty small,” Stevens said. “If we can improve our offense and continue to play well on the defensive side and throw strikes, we will be a better team. Sometimes the difference in those close games is small, but it’s also big and it’s determined by how you practice and prepare.
“We are preparing to continue to execute in those close-game situations because in our league, you are going to be in a lot of them.”
And with the nucleus of its roster back in 2014, Central should be in the hunt for the league crown, with or without the bounces. The Dutch return 16 letterwinners, including six position starters and two starting pitchers. Central also retained its top three batting average leaders—second baseman Adam Ariola, designated hitter Robbie Rushing and outfielder Andrew O’Toole—and top four in runs batted in—Ariola, catcher Jace Ahrendsen, shortstop Jordan Judkins and Rushing.
“We bring back a solid core,” said Stevens. “We have depth at every position. This year we have the largest senior class that we’ve ever had on our roster. That’s a positive thing. They’re doing a good job from a leadership standpoint and practicing hard, which is extremely important. It trickles down to everybody on the team.”
Stevens recognizes the additional games the Dutch need to win and how they need to win them. The league implemented a four-game-series format last season and Central did not adjust well to the extended schedule.
“We need to be better in game four,” Stevens said. “We were not good in the final game. We didn’t finish a good series strong or save a bad series. We need to prepare better for those longer weekends. They are grinds and we need to be ready for the ups and downs.”
Small, simple changes may be enough in the always competitive, parity-filled Iowa Conference. Last year’s champion won by a single game, while Nos. 4-8 were separated by three games in the wins column.
“There’s not a lot of difference between the first- and eighth-place teams in our league,” said Stevens. “Last year’s conference tournament provided some momentum. We know we can compete with any team in our league. But it’s a new year and we’re preparing for the beginning of the season.
“I like this group. Our offseason work definitely stands out. We came back in shape and did a lot of work in the cages. That’s a testament to our leadership. It’s important for our overall development as a team. We’re excited to compete and we will be in the mix.”
Last year’s Dutch infield is intact with the exception of first base, where Central graduated two-time letterwinner Seth Carson, but returns six letterwinners with experience on the dirt.
Senior co-captain Ahrendsen will resume his duties at catcher after batting .240 with 21 RBIs and 15 runs scored. He recorded a team-best 1.000 fielding percentage with 147 putouts. Freshman Michael Reuter of Monticello may also see some time behind the plate.
“Jace is a three-year starter and our pitchers are comfortable with him,” said Stevens. “He has good leadership skills and we’re excited for him this year.”
Up the middle are two mainstays of the Central baseball program. Seniors Judkins and Ariola are three- and four-year starters, respectively, providing defensively stability in addition to their offensive prowess. Co-captain Judkins will play shortstop after splitting time between short and third base last season, while Ariola returns to second base.
“Jordan and Adam were really important parts of our conference championship team and are solid players,” Stevens said. “They’ve had great careers and are versatile and athletic. They’re great defensive players and do good things at the plate. They’re our anchors on the infield.”
Freshman Nate Kuhn of Phoenix, Ariz., will back up both middle infield positions.
From there things are a little less concrete. With the opening at first base and Judkins shifting from the hot corner to middle infield, it means two new faces will man the corners.
Senior Grant Seuferer transferred in last year and is the top option at first base, but has plenty of competition from returnees and newcomers alike. Sophomore Mack Boothe played infield and pitched last year, while freshman Zach Brown of Cedar Rapids plans to do the same. Both are in the mix at first base as well.
“Grant is a great representative of our team on and off the field,” said Stevens. “He saw some action last year and he’s worked hard. He will get the first opportunity, but there is a lot of competition for this spot.”
Third base is more of the same, as sophomore Spencer Gritsch has the upper hand, but has a bevy of other players looking to crack the lineup. Junior Kirby Coppess is a utility infielder known for his defensive skills, while Brown will contend at third base as well.
“Spencer started some games at second last year, but he’s more comfortable at third,” Stevens said. “He’s a good athlete and is going to help our team. Kirby can play anywhere on the bases. Zach had a good fall offensively. If he keeps it up, we are going to have to find ways to get him in the lineup.”
Stevens also noted the athletic abilities of freshmen Blake Judkins, Jordan’s brother, and Noah Stochl of New Hampton. The two have a lot of potential and can play a collection of positions, he said.
New faces will be manning the grass for the Dutch. Graduated two-time team MVP Sam Stetzel left a void in center field, but Stevens believes in the options he has going forward.
Sophomore Dakotah Wolken saw minimal time in center, but will likely fill that spot. Described by Stevens as perhaps the fastest player to ever wear a Central uniform, Wolken will use his speed to cover gap-to-gap.
“Dakotah is a talented player,” said Stevens. “He’s the fastest guy on the roster by far. He can cover ground and has the chance to be an offensive threat because of his great speed.”
Four returners are vying for time in left and right field. O’Toole and junior Zach Zylstra lead the way after starting 22 and 21 games, respectively. O’Toole hit .301 with 12 RBIs and eight runs scored and a .974 fielding percentage.
“Andrew ended the year great offensively and defensively,” Stevens said. “He plays hard and we certainly want him out there. Zach is a doubles threat at the plate and has shown improvement defensively.”
Senior Jake Effron and junior Andy Carr are battling for playing time as well. Carr made 11 appearances on the mound for the Dutch last season, but shifts his primary focus to the outfield after a great offensive performance this fall. Senior Thomas Rodamer will also be in the outfield mix.
“Jake is a solid defensive outfielder and a quality student-athlete,” said Stevens. “Andy was a pitcher last season, but tore it up this fall at the plate. He’s a good athlete and can play multiple positions.”
Perhaps the most intriguing position group on the Dutch baseball team is the pitching staff. Despite graduating one of the team’s pitchers of the year in Ryan Goetzinger and fellow starter Dirk Lindaman, Central sports 10 lively arms between the rotation and the bullpen. It may look like a carousel on the mound this season.
“It’s a unique year,” Stevens said. “We have more guys who pitch and play the field than we have ever had before. It’s a good thing, but it forces us to structure things a bit differently.”
Senior co-captains Ryan Dusil and Judson McKown are the likely aces of this season’s starting rotation. Dusil started nine games and posted a team-best 5-1 record with a 3.86 earned run average, completing one game in 51.1 innings. He struck out 16 batters while allowing his opponents to bat .270. McKown is converting from closer to starter after making 19 appearances en route to school season (8) and career (11) saves marks.
“Ryan and Judson have been very good pitchers at Central,” said Stevens. “We’re expecting a lot out of both of them this year. Ryan is consistent and is a competitor. Judson is transitioning to a starting role. He’s thrown starter innings, but we used him in a unique way, so it isn’t a big change. We want to get him on the mound as much as possible.”
The remainder of the rotation is up in the air, Stevens said. The Dutch have plenty of arms and it’s up to the coaching staff to figure out who starts, relieves and closes. Stevens said that will be the hardest part.
Along with the two veterans, Rushing will see time on the hill. Generally thought of for his bat, Stevens said his arm will make a lot of noise this spring as well. Senior James Longo Jr. and Carr are two more experienced right-handers in the bunch.
“Robbie has a ton of potential on the mound and at the plate,” said Stevens. “We’re trying to focus him on those two areas, so he will probably pitch and DH the majority of the time.”
From there it will be a collection of young arms—sophomores Greg Harris, Matt Schissel, Mark Schroeder and Wolken and freshmen Brown, Judkins and Carter Trager of Dallas Center. Harris is a big southpaw standing 6 feet, 5 inches tall.
“Matt is looking really good right now and we’re excited to see his development,” said Stevens. “Blake has a chance to be really good if he keeps working hard. Mark was primarily a reliever, but he may get some starts this year.
“Everyone is in the mix and will have to be ready when their name is called.”
Stevens heads a four-man staff with two new faces.
Jordan DeGeorge, a 2010 honors graduate at Beloit College (Wis.), came to Central after serving as a pitchers and catchers coach at Wheaton College (Ill.) for the past four seasons. Cody Baethke, a 2010 Central grad, returns after a year at Wis.-Eau Claire.
Todd Zylstra is in his fifth season on staff and works with Central’s junior varsity squad.
“It’s basically a new coaching staff,” said Stevens. “We’ve done a lot of reorganizing. Jordan has been an outstanding addition, while Cody is very energetic and positive. Both work very hard. Todd does a great job developing our younger players as well.”
The Central baseball field kicked off the Step Up to the Plate Project with the construction of new dugouts. Backstop netting was installed. The construction will also include new stadium seating behind home plate.
“The improvements to the facilities are a positive step for us,” Stevens said. “We really appreciate the support we’ve received from alumni and the administration. It’s been great. And there are more improvements to come as well.”
The Dutch play a 23-date, 40-game schedule, with 15 contests at Central’s baseball field.
In addition, the team is trading in Florida for Arizona as its spring break destination. Central will play Dordt, Bethany Lutheran (Minn.), Macalester (Minn.), Augsburg (Minn.), Crown (Minn.) Marian (Wis.) and Hamline (Minn.) as part of the Tucson Invitational Games.
“We are going to face solid teams in Arizona,” said Stevens. “Arizona is a good recruiting area. We’re excited to leave the cold behind for Tucson.
“We want to get off to a good start. We’ve been successful at that in previous years. Once we are through spring break it is all conference games.”
The Dutch open conference play at Dubuque March 28-29. After that it’s all league play until the Iowa Conference tournament at Cedar Rapids May 8-11.
“There’s so much parity in our league,” Stevens said. “It’s competitive and hopefully we can get some things going our way as we enter that last weekend.”