2012 Iowa Conference champions
2014 overall record: 28-15
Conference record/finish: 17-11 (third place)
Letterwinners lost: 10
Letterwinners returning: 11
Position starters lost: 6 (Robbie Rushing - DH, Jordan Judkins - SS, Adam Ariola - 2B, Andrew O'Toole - RF, Jace Ahrendsen - C, Grant Seuferer - 1B)
Position starters returning: 3 (Zach Zylstra - LF, Zach Brown - 3B, Dakotah Wolken - CF)
Starting pitchers lost: 2 (Judson McKown, Robbie Rushing)
Starting pitchers returning: 2 (Dakotah Wolken, Matt Schissel)
A new era for the Central College baseball team begins as first-year coach Matt Schirm inherits a roster that is largely new as well.
The graduated class of 2014 provided the most successful four-year run in school history with 101 wins. Gone are 13 seniors as well as the coach, Adam Stevens, who left for Aurora University (Ill.) after a successful 10-year run. Schirm, a standout player at Iowa Conference rival Coe College and, most recently, the top assistant at Wartburg College looks to continue the upward trend, despite a lack of returning experience.
“In general, when you lose 13 seniors, I think on paper and from the outside we’re not going to look as good as last year,” Schirm said. “But Coach Stevens really did me a favor by bringing in a good recruiting class. We’ve got good returning players but also a good nucleus of young guys. I think if we maximize their potential we’ll be right there in the mix for a conference championship.”
The Dutch do return 11 letterwinners, including starters in left field, center field, third base and two of the team’s starting pitchers.
“We have a good nucleus of pitchers coming back, though they need to perform better than they did in the fall workouts,” Schirm said. “I feel really good about our outfield, we have a lot of depth out there. Our infield still has some question marks, but we just need some guys to step up. We have the talent, we just need guys to step up and we need to do a good job of coaching them and making them better.”
Offensive production is an early concern. Four of the team’s top five hitters from last season have graduated and the players responsible for 191 of the teams 249 runs batted are gone.
“We have a lot of improvement to make,” Schirm said. “This fall we didn’t perform that well offensively, we struck out way too much. That’s going to be an area of emphasis here in the preseason.”
Central, 28-15 overall last season, was 17-11 in league play, good for third place, and advanced to the league title game. Schirm said Buena Vista is his pick to repeat as champion.
“I think Buena Vista has to be the favorite,” Schirm said. “They did lose some key guys, but I know they’ve had some good recruiting classes with good young talent. Wartburg is also going to be in the mix. Coach (Joel) Holst always has those guys ready and he does an outstanding job. Those two will be the preseason favorites.”
An infield that had stayed mostly intact over the the last three years will have to be reworked. Gone are a trio of players who have started for at least three years, including one four-year starter.
Adam Ariola graduated last May after having played 159 games in four years, tied for most in school history. He along with fellow graduate Jordan Judkins had patrolled the infield together for the last three years.
“Jordan Judkins and Adam Ariola were probably the best middle infield duo in the league last year,” Schirm said. “We’re going to have to do the best we can to replace those guys.”
The competition to replace them begins with senior Kirby Coppess moving over from third base to shortstop. Coppess hit .274 in 28 starts last season.
“Kirby had a good fall after we moved him over to shortstop,” Schirm said “He performed well over there both defensively and offensively.”
Other potential suitors to fill the middle infield void include a pair of returners in sophomore Noah Stochl and Spencer Gritsch. A junior, Gritsch missed most of 2014 with injury. There are also several freshmen vying for time up the middle.
“It’s still kind of up in the air,” Schirm said. “There’s still a lot of competition going on in the middle infield.”
There is also plenty of uncertainty at the corner infield slots. Other than Coppess, Zach Brown is the only returner with significant experience at the corners. Brown split time between first base and third base last season and the sophomore could do much of the same this year.
“Zach played first and third equally this fall and he’s good at both,” Schirm said.
Senior Jordan Gier, a former outfielder, is a possible solution at first base, while sophomore Toby Wall could help out at either corner position. Several talented freshman are also possibilities.
“We got some evaluations on guys in the fall,” Schirm said. “It’s really going to be an ongoing process through the preseason. There are so many guys that are competing for those positions. It’s tough to tell who is going to be there in a few weeks.”
With the graduation of another three-year starter in catcher Jace Ahrendsen, Schirm will also need to find a new backstop this season. Sophomore Michael Reuter is the only player on the roster with varsity catching experience, earning four starts last season He will have to hold off several freshman candidates to win the job outright.
Two returning starters and several new challengers, including a running back from the football team and a pitcher create a crowded outfield group.
“I really like our outfield depth,” Schirm said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that I think can play.”
Senior Zach Zylstra is the team’s top returning hitter, batting .339 while starting nearly every game in left field. Meanwhile sophomore Dakotah Wolken split time between center field and the pitching rubber and may do the same again.
“Zach had a good fall season,” Schirm said. “Dakotah is a part of our pitching staff, but he is also in the mix in the outfield as well.”
Senior pitcher Andy Carr turned some heads this fall as an outfielder.
Junior Adam Lindell, a football running back for the Dutch, played outfield at Augustana (S.D.) and Lamar Community College (Colo.) before transferring to Central and joins the team this spring.
Schirm also noted the athleticism of sophomore outfielder Jacob Hirst.
Gone are three significant senior pitchers, including one of the best relief pitchers in Central history Judson McKown, a third-team all-region selection last season.
The cupboards are not bare for first-year pitching coach John Love however. Wolken broke out in a huge way last season, earning honorable mention all-conference status. He went 6-2 with a 3.60 ERA in his 65 innings. Junior Matt Schissel led the Dutch with 29 strikeouts in 49.2 innings.
“Schissel and Wolken obviously have a lot of experience,” Schirm said. “They’re definitely going to be in the mix for Iowa Conference starts.”
Blake Judkins came on strong in his freshman season in 2014, making five starts for the Dutch and earning three wins. Schirm says he may have the strongest arm on the team with a mid-to-high 80’s fastball.
When he is not in the outfield, Carr will likely be eating up innings on the mound. Last year, Carr made 11 relief appearances in holding opponents to a .217 batting average.
“Andy Carr had a really nice fall,” Schirm said. “He may have been the most consistent pitcher as far as being in the strike zone consistently.”
Juniors Mark Schroeder and Greg Harris gave the team quality innings in sporadic outings last season and both will vie for a greater workload.
The biggest addition to the pitching staff this offseason may have come in the form of a former junior varsity infielder. Junior Austin Meyer had a bullpen tryout lead to a position switch.
“Our biggest surprise of the fall was Austin Meyer,” Schirm said. “He told me he wanted to throw a bullpen one day, so we let him and he looked great. He’s focusing on pitching now, he has a chance to be in the mix there as well.”
A large contingent of promising freshman arms arrived last fall. Schirm will need some of them to progress quickly. Schirm knows the talent is there to continue a recent trend of quality Central pitchers, but there is work to be done.
“As a whole, I didn’t think the pitching staff performed well in the fall,” Schirm said. “We had far too many walks. We need some guys to step up here.”
Schirm is one of two new members of the coaching staff, with three holdovers from the previous regime.
Love is a former pitcher at Juniata College (Pa.).
“I call John my top recruit,” Schirm said.” I brought him in right after I got hired. He and I click really well together and he does a really good job with the pitchers. He has a great demeanor and has earned their respect quickly.”
Cody Baethke returns for a second season to assist the outfielders. Todd Zylstra and Eric Van WynGarden return as volunteer assistants.
Junior Nick Hunter has come aboard as a student coach after injuries derailed his own playing career.
“Most of the time when you have a student coach you don’t necessarily feel comfortable letting him run a station, but that’s not the case with Nick,” Schirm said. “Several times in the fall he took guys and worked with them individually. He’s been a great addition to our staff.”
The baseball field received a major facelift before last season with new dugouts and stadium seating behind home plate. A new round of field work last summer completed the overhaul that began a few years ago with the Step Up to the Plate Project.
“The exterior of our field is the best in the conference, when you consider the dugouts and the stadium seating,” Schirm said. “We’ve worked really hard on the field this fall. We had our guys put some sweat equity into it. (Former Dutch coach John) Edwards and the facilities staff at Central put some sod down this summer and that has taken really well.”
With the unpredictable nature of Iowa spring weather, Central’s indoor facilities are crucial to the program.
“The hitting facilities we have here are great,” Schirm said. “We have four indoor hitting cages, two of which are down all year, so our guys can get cuts in all year round. In the fieldhouse we are able to put down bases and make a full 90-foot base path and infield. We’re not limited at all indoors.”
The Dutch will embark on a schedule that includes 40 games in two months.
After opening with three games at Greenville (Ill.) College March 6-7, the team returns to Arizona for the Tucson Invitational Games over spring break for the second season in a row. They will play eight games in seven days against Illinois Institute of Technology, Augsburg (Minn.), Marian (Wis.), Hamline (Minn.), Gustavus Adolphus (Minn.), and Concordia (Wis.).
“They’ve got a lot of really solid teams there,” Schirm said. “It’ll be good competition. There’s definitely no teams that will be easy wins on that schedule.”
“The non-conference schedule is going to largely be about figuring out some positions,” Schirm said. “It’ll be good to see where we are."
The league schedule opens at Wartburg March 27-28 and wraps up with the six-team conference tournament in Cedar Rapids May 7-9.
“Top to bottom, it’s going to be a tough conference just like it is every year,” Schirm said. “It’s going to be a dog fight every weekend in the Iowa Conference.”