WAVERLY — Wartburg College has a lot of reasons to be excited about the 2017 baseball season.
After winning the last two Iowa Conference regular-season championships and making the NCAA Tournament three of the past four years, the Knights head into a new season with 13 seniors and 14 juniors on the roster. Among them are seven returning starters and five of last season’s top six pitchers.
Head coach Joel Holst and his team have one more reason to be excited. If everything goes according to plan, Wartburg will open its season Sunday against Hamline — on the Knights’ home field.
“The middle of February, playing at home, it’ll be a first for us,” said Holst. “We’re excited about that opportunity if it happens for us.”
Holst can put together a lineup that includes conference player of the year candidate Jacob Thumann (.355, 12 home runs, 34 RBIs, 11 stolen bases), all-league shortstop Clay Henning (.340), Zach Hovick (.329), Blake Mahoney (.282, 29 stolen bases), Mike Brown and Cody Hyler. In addition, Ty Mougin is a former starter fighting to win back his position and former Waverly-Shell Rock High School standout Eric Willis has joined the program as a transfer.
On the mound, Tanner Eckhart (4-0, 1.30 ERA) and Austin Bohling (1-1. 1.93) return along with battle-tested veterans Chris Tomkins, Max Langheinrich, Taylor Gilson, Gavin Nadermann and Michael Knouse. Andrew Jordan and Eric Huber are coming off injuries and could provide depth.
There will be a void to be filled in the middle of the lineup where Tanner Johnson, Milton Croes and Ryan Kemp were a formidable trio the past couple of seasons.
“Those three kids are pretty difficult to replace,” said Holst. “I think we will replace them with more athleticism, so we’re excited about putting pressure on defenses as much as we can.”
Overall, the Knights have what they need to put together a big season.
“Our guys have high expectations,” said Holst, whose team is ranked 26th nationally in the NCBWA preseason poll.
SOFTBALL: After several years of struggles, the Knights were once again a team to be reckoned with last season when they won 18 games, went 7-7 in the conference and made the league tournament for the first time since 2009.
Nearly everyone is back for head coach Jamie Mueller, plus Taylor Smola, who is returning after a year away from the program.
“The team’s season goal is to make it to the NCAA Tournament,” said Mueller. “Last year we made some huge strides.”
The lineup will have plenty of speed and plenty of punch. Infielders Erica Countryman and Mara Forsyth hit .450 and .437 last season, respectively, and earned second-team all-conference and all-district honors. Versatile Kailee O’Brien was honorable mention all-conference after hitting .324, and twin sisters Kristie and Katie Sommer will again make an impact when they join the team following basketball season.
Kim Wedeking is back as the No. 1 pitcher while Brenna Gray also got a few varsity innings last year (23.2). Depth in the circle, said Mueller, is a concern.
On the other hand, these Knights have tasted success, and they are hungry for more.
“I think just from where the program was a few years ago and leading up to last year there was almost an expectation from them to lose and get beat up on in the conference,” said Mueller. “I think from some of the success they saw last year, they completely changed their expectation. Now they expect to win. They think they can beat anybody. And they’re determined to really turn this program around and bring it back to the top of the conference again.”
MEN’S GOLF: Head coach Jason Steege returns five golfers who played in the majority of the team’s tournaments last fall in Tanner Randall, Austin Newbrough, Matt McAleer, Joe Zittergruen and Austin Thompson. Nathan Steggall is also in the mix for one of those top five spots.
The Knights have finished second in the Iowa Conference the past two years.
MEN’S TENNIS: The Knights already have three dual meets and one win under their belts, and the No. 1 doubles team of Brandon Hornback and Connor Barnard are unbeaten so far.
Overall, everyone in the top six for coach Chris Gustas has previous varsity experience as Wartburg takes aim at perennial league favorites Coe and Luther.
WOMEN’S LACROSSE: Two years ago, the lacrosse season was one of discovery for Wartburg’s new program. Last year, the Knights took a giant step by going 7-10 overall and 3-6 in conference play.
“Statistically speaking, we really started to compete within our conference,” said second-year head coach Anna Meerbach. “I think as the season went on, we really started to kind of grab hold of what Wartburg lacrosse was going to be.”